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Sunday, May 25, 2003  

SARS: Understanding an epidemic

Part I: The 'cat' who may cause SARS

•Hong Kong researchers finger civet

Another possible vector for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), has been identified.

The coronavirus which causes SARS has been traced to the civet cat, a wild animal that is considered a delicacy in southern China, researchers said here yesterday hailing the finding as a major breakthrough.

Hong Kong University biologist Yuen Kwok-yuen told reporters that researchers from HKU and health officials in southern China "had successfully isolated the coronavirus causing SARS from civet cats."

"From a special type of civet cat, we were able to isolate a coronavirus. And the coronavirus, after genomic analysis, was found to be very, very similar to the coronavirus causing SARS in humans," said Yuen. "Looking at genetic information it looks as if this coronavirus has been jumping from the civet cat to humans."

The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and other medical researchers are considering the link. Previously, attention had focused on cats and chickens.

The civet cat is eaten in China and other parts of Asia. In addition, an estimated 80,000 of the animals roam Singapore alone.

Civet cats are considered a culinary delicacy in China's Guangdong province, where the killer virus first surfaced in November of 2002. The disease spread rapidly across the globe, and has now caused over 8100 infections and nearly 700 deaths.

Hong Kong has begun efforts to control how the animals are reared for slaughter, Diarmid of the Anti-Colonial Agitator reports.

A statement from the University of Hong Kong says that to prevent any further jumps of SARS from civets to humans, the animals should be reared on farms that regularly test the animals and use a vaccine as soon as one is developed.

Other reports say officials in some Asian countries are rounding up the animals for elimination and may stop importing civet cat meat. •Meet the civet cat

One of the first things you will notice about him is he is not a cat.

Civet, pronounced SIHV iht, is a furry mammal that looks somewhat like a long, slender cat. But a civet has a more pointed snout, a fluffier tail, and shorter legs than a cat. Civets live in Asia from India to Indonesia, and in Africa.

The masked palm civet (Paguma larvata), as the blogger at FortBoise points out, the genus implicated in the SARS epidemic, is found only in Asia. Though civets are omnivorous, that variety eats mainly plants.

The striking feature of the civet cat is its tail, which is as long as its body, 13 to 38 inches. The tail is used for climbing trees and grasping. Since most civets live in trees, it is essential to the species.

Filipino blogger Willie Galang, who may have actually seen a civic cat or two, observes the the name is creating confusion. (A perusal of web logs reveals people are confusing civets, shown here in a picture from World Book Encyclopedia OS X Edition, with felines.)

Another interesting feature of the cat which isn't a cat is the ability to mark territory with musk. That aspect of its physique got the mammal its last international attention. The musk is used in perfumes and it was said some producers abused the animals to get them to produce it.

Civet cats are nocturnal and individualistic, usually living alone.

They are classified as members of the family Viverridae.

11:07 PM