May 23, 2003
SARS, a mongoose virus?

Articles in the Washington Post and the NY Times suggest that there's the possibility that the coronavirus implicated in the SARS epidemic may have originated in exotic wild game that are served as delicacies in Asia. Researchers from China and the University of Hong Kong went to a live animal market in Guangdong (Canton) province and tested 25 animals there. Among them were six the Masked Palm Civets (an animal related to the mongoose)

which demonstrated a coronavirus almost identical to the SARS example in both their feces and saliva. A Raccoon Dog was found to have "genetic evidence" of the coronavirus in its feces (probably a PCR test), and a Chinese Ferret Badger possessed antibodies to the coronavirus in its blood (in other words, the virus itself wasn't found, but antibodies to defend against the virus were).

This evidence is highly suggestive. The Washington Post article has more scientific details than the Times piece. It reports that sequence of the coronavirus from these civets was identical to the human SARS virus save for 29 basepairs.

It is already known that the human version possesses 29.7-thousand letters in its genetic code. The virus found in the animals differs by just 1/1000th of this genetic code.

If the virus did indeed "jump" from an animal reservoir to human, the mechanism may be that the virus lost a small bit of genetic code that truncate a peptide sequence as small as nine amino acids in the virus's external shell. Somehow this modification made this virus highly pathogenic in humans.

This is all hypothesis right now, there are lots of questions to be answered. It's definitely possible that these animals were infected by yet another host that is the "true reservoir". It would also be interesting to come up with a mechanism of how this difference in 29 letters of genetic code developed.

Eating exotic wild game has a long and deeply entrenched tradition in Chinese culture. Masked palm civets are traditionally eaten during the autumn and winter to "help people withstand the winter". It's more likely that, supposing the virus made a species jump, that it occurred during the preparation of food, i.e. slaughtering and cleaning the animal, rather than eating the animal (where cooking would have inactivated the virus).

Posted by erich at May 23, 2003 06:02 PM
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