GUANGZHOU, China (AP) - World Health Organization investigators found "good evidence'' to suggest that animals play a role in SARS, uncovering traces of the virus in the restaurant where a patient worked and civet cats were served, the team's leader said Friday.
But Dr. Robert Breiman also said that SARS should not be considered an immediate public health threat in China - a reassurance pivotal in its timing, days before hundreds of millions of people begin traveling around the country for the Chinese New Year.
Breiman also said it was possible that rodents play a role in spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome.
"There isn't conclusive proof, but it's very plausible that rodents do have a role,'' Breiman said at a news conference.
In samples from the Guangzhou restaurant that employed a 20-year-old waitress suspected to have SARS, "Tests revealed on each cage the SARS coronavirus,'' Breiman said.
"Not only were there civet cats there, but at some point civet cats that were carrying the SARS coronavirus,'' he said.
"I think there is very good evidence to think animals are the reservoir and the way the disease gets started,'' he said, adding: "We still don't know what role the civet cats play in spreading the virus.''
The team has been in Guangzhou, Guangdong's provincial capital, all week taking and examining samples.
SARS emerged from southern China and sickened more than 8,000 people worldwide last year before subsiding in June.
The disease killed 774 people including 349 in China.
This season, authorities have one confirmed case and two suspected ones. The confirmed case has recovered, and the two suspected ones are said to be doing well. - AP