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Is SARS Gone for Good?

We haven't licked SARS yet, despite the news that a recent SARS-like outbreak in a Canadian nursing home was not caused by the SARS virus. Anthropologist Richard V. Lee says, "There's going to be another SARS sometime; there's no doubt about it."

Laboratory tests show the virus responsible for the respiratory illness that recently affected 150 people is not SARS. "We have clearly found large sequences of the virus that are not present in the SARS coronavirus," says epidemiologist David Patrick. This new virus looks like SARS and acts like a milder version of the disease, but is not actually severe acute respiratory syndrome.

That doesn't mean that more SARS-like epidemics aren't on the way. Richard Lee says, "There are places in the world that seem to be a Pandora's box for certain kinds of infectious disease. The way people live and interact with their environment sets the stage for letting these viruses out of their box." This was certainly true for SARS, which was caused by eating wild civet cats in an area of China.

Other places this could happen are fish-farming villages in Southeast Asia, where liver fluke infections, Japanese B encephalitis and Nipah virus are a threat, and agricultural communities in Africa that are close to wildlife populations, where Ebola and African tick typhus can be found. So far, none of these viruses has spread worldwide, the way SARS did. Ebola is the scariest, but it probably hasn't spread because it strikes so suddenly and is so debilitating that people who have it don't get a chance to travel. Lee says, "Humans can break a virus out of its Pandora box by moving the geography of the germ, or a virus can break out by switching to another species. When we do things to a germ's environment we set the stage for the germs to do something to us."

He says SARS still exists in animal species and is "looking for another opportunity" to infect humans. "As long as those hosts are alive and the bug stays in those hosts, the coronavirus will be around," Lee says. "It may evolve into a more benign bug or a more virulent bug, but it's not dead."

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