1 September 2003, Rome -- The threat of future SARS outbreaks must be considered real as long as the source of the SARS coronavirus remains obscure, FAO warned in a statement today.

"To date there is no evidence that farm animal species have been infected with SARS coronavirus found in humans," according to the UN agency.

The statement was based on a report by Laurie Gleeson, a senior Australian veterinarian, from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's Australian Animal Health Laboratory, who recently returned from a three-week mission to China under the auspices of the joint FAO/WHO study group on the SARS problem.

The purpose of the mission was to review the available laboratory and field data collected from animal (domestic species and wildlife) sources obtained by Chinese investigators during and after the massive spread of SARS virus among the human population.

Identifying an animal reservoir would be of great importance for future prevention measures in China or elsewhere if such an association could be made.

Animals tested

Dr. Gleeson met with Chinese and other scientists, who are currently investigating the SARS virus to assist in the interpretation of their findings and recommend further studies.

Chinese and Canadian researchers have sampled or tested over 600 farm animals including chickens, ducks, pigs and rabbits, but have not detected evidence of SARS coronavirus infection.

In Beijing, and during intensive field travel, the infectious disease expert met with scientists from the Ministries of Agriculture and Health and several research institutes as well as health officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to assess the evidence that livestock could have had a role in the origin and spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome pandemic.

Animal species under investigation

"Based on preliminary laboratory testing, a number of animal species is under investigation as a possible source for the virus, including the palm civet, racoon dog, a species of fruit bat, and one species of snake," Dr Gleeson said, "yet we still don't know the original source as it is possible that these animals were exposed to the virus in the animal markets."

The expert recommended strengthening of epidemiological capability through targeted surveillance studies directed to animal populations considered to be at high risk of exposure to SARS virus.

This would provide information on the roles played by certain animal species and ensure that they were included in an early warning system to detect renewed viral circulation.

The urgent need to develop better diagnostic tests for use in animals and to define the relationship between the SARS virus isolated from humans and the slightly different virus isolated from animals was stressed.

Stepped up disease surveillance at farms and slaughter houses is recommended and Chinese authorities are currently well aware of the need for this precautionary step.

Along with FAO, WHO is currently exploring ways to follow up on Dr. Gleeson's recommendations for planning further studies that target livestock species in high-risk areas and for standardizing and validating laboratory tests for SARS virus in animals, to further the scientific knowledge of SARS coronavirus.

Dr. Laurie Gleeson/Emma Homes
(+61) 3 5227 5123

Erwin Northoff
Information Officer, FAO
(+39) 06 5705 3105