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[BEIJING] China is to slaughter 10,000 cat-like animals known as civets in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in an attempt to prevent further outbreaks of severe acute respiratory disease (SARS).

Researchers in Guangdong and Hong Kong have linked a virus found in the animals with the strain of the SARS virus that was detected in China's first patient since June.

The finding has added further weight to suspicions that civets, which are eaten as a delicacy in Guangdong, are the source of the SARS virus.

"The genetic sequences of the SARS virus found in civets and the patient's SARS virus samples are almost identical, suggesting the disease might have recently jumped from the animals to humans," says Xu Ruiheng, deputy director of the Guangdong disease prevention and control centre.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, has criticised the cull, arguing that there is no conclusive evidence that the animals are the source of the virus. Furthermore, even if the animals were the source of the disease, a massive cull — which could expose humans to the animals' blood — could be more dangerous than letting them live, according to the WHO.

China's health authorities, however, insist that the sterilisation procedures being followed during the cull are sufficient to prevent the spread of SARS.

China banned eating and selling civets in May but relaxed the ban in August after the outbreak was contained (see China lifts ban on selling civets that may spread SARS). The provincial government has now ordered that all wild animal markets stop selling and cooking civets, and kill all living civets before Saturday (10 January).

SARS first appeared in Guangdong in November 2002. It infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide, mainly in Asia.

The latest Chinese patient, a TV producer from Guangzhou, is the first case of SARS not linked to a laboratory accident since the initial outbreak of the disease was declared contained on 5 July 2003 (see Lab accident fuels SARS fears).

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