A joint team of specialists from the Chinese government, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is in China to help design further investigations into a possible animal reservoir of the SARS coronavirus. The experts visited Guangdong province from 13 to 19 August, where they conducted field visits to markets and farms, research centres, and human health facilities. They also consulted with local officials. The team, which began its work in Beijing on 11 August, returned to the capital on 19 August and will report to senior officials at the Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Health officials on 21 August. The team is comprised of animal and human health experts, as well as specialists in tracking animal reservoirs for human diseases.
The mission is being jointly led by WHO’s Dr Pierre Formenty, a Geneva-based Zoonotic Disease specialist and Dr Xu Jianguo, Director of the National Institute of Communicable Disease with the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr Formenty stressed that the investigation remains a work in progress and that the mission’s objective is to determine what further studies are needed to explore the potential for an animal reservoir. “The mission is not intended to provide a definitive answer about an animal reservoir for the SARS coronavirus,” says Dr Formenty. “To be able to implement SARS control and prevention measures, we need to know where it comes from. But unfortunately, a lot of question marks still remain; and as with other diseases, it could be years before the animal reservoir is discovered.”
Mr Alan Schnur, responsible for Communicable Disease Control in WHO’s Beijing office, said that, ideally, further studies should start as soon as possible. It is unknown whether SARS will return in November, when the cold weather season in China begins. And while comprehensive data will not be immediately available, even limited information will prove useful in combating the disease. At the same time, he said, WHO is working with the Chinese government to implement enhanced SARS surveillance and response systems to rapidly detect and respond to SARS should it return. WHO is simultaneously working with the Ministry of Health to strengthen infection control systems in hospitals.
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