Scientists have finally traced the animal host from which the SARS virus mutated and jumped to human beings: the civet cat. At first it was thought that SARS originated with birds, as most flu viruses have recently. Virus samples from civet cats are very similar to the virus that causes SARS in humans. “It is highly likely that the virus jumped across,” says microbiologist Kwok-Yung Yuen.

“If these findings are true, then this is a significant breakthrough,” says Peter Cordingley of the World Health Organization (WHO). “First of all, it confirms the theory that the virus has crossed the species barrier. Secondly, it will help scientists work on an effective diagnostic test.”

Civet cats are eaten and are considered a great delicacy in China’s Guangdong province, where the virus first surfaced. Scientists suggest that to help avoid future SARS transmissions, only farm-raised civet cats should be eaten and the animals should be regularly tested. Yuen says SARS could have originated in another, smaller animal, which infected the civet before it in turn infected humans.

Two news studies show that SARS is contagious enough to cause a global epidemic, if uncontrolled. When SARS patients are not isolated, each person infects 2 to 4 other people. “If uncontrolled, it would infect the majority of people wherever it was introduced,” say Chris Dye and Nigel Gay of WHO. They note that a few people, who for some reason are “super-spreaders,” have infected up to 300 people by themselves.

In these troubled times, we all need some good advice.

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