Virus has been eradicated, American Association for the Advancement of Science is told
THE killer Sars virus has been contained so effectively that it can be considered eradicated outside laboratories, scientists said yesterday.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome killed 774 people between November 2002 and June 2003 but it is is no longer circulating in human beings or animals, according to research that ends fears that fresh outbreaks could emerge from natural reservoirs still harbouring the disease. For Sars to return as a threat, it would have to evolve again from scratch or be released in a laboratory accident or bio terror attack, the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference heard.

Even if Sars or a related coronavirus reappeared, the world would be well prepared for dealing with it, Kathryn Holmes, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Colorado, said. Several vaccines against Sars have been developed, along with treatments that block infection, and the quarantine measures needed to contain its spread are much better understood.

Although the virus has escaped from research centres three times since the end of the epidemic, in Beijing, Singapore and Taiwan, none of the accidents led to a major outbreak. The three incidents caused a total of nine cases and one death, the elderly mother of an infected Chinese laboratory assistant.

Professor Holmes, a former president of the American Society for Virology who has studied coronaviruses for 28 years, said it was clear that Sars would not become an endemic disease, carried by animals or unaffected people and causing seasonal outbreaks.

New research has shown that a coronavirus that caused four cases of respiratory disease in southern China was not Sars, and that the country’s Himalayan palm civets, thought to be the most likely source of the Sars virus, do not harbour the epidemic strain.

“The epidemic strain has not been seen in nature since June 2003,” she said. “So far as anyone can see, the strain that caused the epidemic is not being harboured in animals. The viral strains recently isolated from Himalayan palm civets do not resemble the viral strain from the epidemic.”

Scientists are confident that Sars no longer exists in the wild and has essentially disappeared as a threat, she said. For it to emerge again as a threat to human beings, an animal coronavirus would have to mutate in the same way as the original virus so that it could be transmitted from person to person.

Avian flu raises pandemic fears

The avian flu that has killed 42 people in Asia is a “very frightening” virus with the potential to cause the worst pandemic in history, Nancy Cox, of the US Centres for Disease Control, America’s chief influenza scientist, said. The death rate is currently 76 per cent, compared with 30 per cent for smallpox and 1 per cent for the Spanish flu that caused up to 40 million deaths in 1918-19.

Recovery in the Garden of Eden

The marshes of southern Iraq drained by Saddam Hussein are making a remarkable recovery, Curtis Richardson, of Duke University in North Carolina, said. A fifth of the wetlands, said to be the site of the Garden of Eden, have been reflooded since 2003, after Marsh Arabs destroyed dams. Animal and plant life is recovering. Water shortages and a need to protect villages mean a 30 per cent recovery is the best hope.

THE killer Sars virus has been contained so effectively that it can be considered eradicated outside laboratories, scientists said yesterday.