Hunting for hosts. WHO team member Pierre Formenty in a Guangdong market where suspect masked palm civets were sold.

Souped-Up SARS Surveillance

TOKYO--An international team of health experts has agreed on recommendations for monitoring the live animal trade, which was implicated in spreading the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus. It also has ideas for speeding up the search for the animals that harbor the virus in the wild. Their advice--including a call for expanded animal testing and international cooperation--will be delivered to Chinese authorities on 5 September.

The link between market animals and SARS was suggested in May, when Yi Guan of the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues at UHK and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, announced findings--described in detail in a paper published online today by Science--pointing to masked palm civets and other wild species as possible hosts of the SARS virus (ScienceNOW, 23 May). Chinese authorities subsequently halted sales of 54 species of wild animals (Science, 30 May, p. 1351). Negotiations between the Chinese government and the World Health Organization resulted in the formation of this international team, with experts representing the Chinese government, WHO, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The new recommendations call for more joint surveillance teams and greater cooperation both within China and internationally. Alan Schnur, WHO's team leader for communicable disease control in Beijing, says there is already agreement on the need for further missions but that detailed plans are needed. He says, "We have got to be quick, because we want to get some of these answers before winter," when many experts fear that the SARS virus could re-emerge. And to help find the wild hosts, the team points out the "pressing need" to standardize the diagnosis of animal infections and develop a practical animal test for the SARS virus.

Other recommendations focus on ensuring that live animals brought to markets are free of the SARS virus, now that China has resumed trade in civets and other banned species, says Xu Jianguo, director of the National Institute of Communicable Disease at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and a team co-leader. Only farm-raised animals can be sold, animals trapped in the wild are still prohibited. The team suggests that records be kept on each animal from farm to market. The report also calls for proper fencing to isolate farm animals from wild animals and new programs to screen animals for the virus.

With reporting by Ding Yimin in Beijing.

Related site
WHO's SARS site