Lab Accidents May Lead to SARS Outbreaks

Tuesday, September 20th 2005, 9:17 am
By: News On 6

NOUMEA, New Caledonia (AP) _ Laboratory accidents are the most likely source of future outbreaks of SARS, a leading expert with the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

Earlier this month, researchers in Hong Kong discovered a SARS-like virus in a species of bat, raising the possibility that the bats were a primary source of the disease when it emerged in humans in southern China in late 2002, killing 774 people worldwide.

Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, WHO's Asia Pacific adviser for communicable diseases, said severe acute respiratory syndrome had been contained but could make a resurgence.

``We are pretty sure that there is no chain of human to human transmission (in SARS) right now,'' he told The Associated Press during a break in a WHO conference in New Caledonia. ``It's gone, but it may come back.''

He said it was likely the virus had existed in the animal population for ``hundreds of years'' before being transmitted to humans by some genetic variation that scientists had yet to identify.

As a result, he said, the virus found in Chinese horseshoe bats did not necessarily pose any risk to humans. It is unclear where the bats got the virus.

``Even if the similar virus is widely circulating in the bat or some other animal in the natural environment it doesn't necessarily mean that this virus causes infection in humans,'' Oshitani said.

Laboratories holding stocks of the human form of SARS were a more likely source of a resurgence in the disease, he said.

``There have been already three incidents of laboratory accidents that resulted in a human infection, in Taiwan, Singapore and Beijing,'' he said.

After SARS first became a threat in 2002, research suggested the virus may have come from the civet, a catlike wild animal eaten by people in southern China. Thousands were seized from Chinese wildlife markets and slaughtered.

The new research, to be published in The Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences journal, raises the possibility that the bats may have given the civets the SARS virus or given it directly to humans.