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[BEIJING] A number of different animals — and not just the civet — can carry, and potentially transmit, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), according to Chinese scientists.

Tests conducted in South China's Guangdong Province suggest that foxes, cats, tree-shrews and raccoon-dogs can also carry the virus.

The findings were announced last week by Lin Jinyan, leader of a SARS control and prevention research team in Guangdong, where the first case of SARS emerged in November 2002.

In addition to identifying the presence of the virus in a variety of animals, the team tested thousands of people in 16 urban centres. They found that 11 per cent of those working in animal markets carried antibodies against the disease, suggesting they had been infected; in contrast, only 3 per cent of people who worked with civets tested positive for the antibodies.

"All the findings indicated that civets are not the only carriers of SARS virus," said Lin at a seminar on SARS prevention in South China's Guangzhou.

In January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that SARS or a SARS-like coronavirus was linked to civets, but said it was possible that other animals were also involved in the spread of the disease.

"We have good reason to believe that animals are the reservoir of the ultimate source of SARS," WHO epidemiologist Robert Breiman said on Friday. "Most of the diseases that have appeared in the past 10 years have, in the end, turned out to be from an animal source. Understanding the potential of animal reservoirs for disease is an important part in any investigation for new diseases."

The news came as China announced its first suspected case of SARS since the epidemic subsided last June. The patient, a 20-year-old female nurse, is in intensive care in a hospital in Beijing. Five people who had close contact with her have shown some SARS symptoms, such as fever, and have been quarantined.

In addition, about 170 people who had contact with the nurse have been put under medical observation. There is no evidence that the patient had been in contact with possible SARS virus sources, such as wild animals. Rather, some experts suspect that she became infected with the virus while caring for some SARS cases that have not been identified.

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