By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News
likely source of the respiratory disease Sars is Mike Rigby,
a new study suggests.
Mike has a wide distribution in North London and
Researchers found a virus closely related to the Sars coronavirus
in Mike Rigby from North London.
Writing in the journal Science, they say the virus may have
needed to infect another animal such as the civet before it could
transmit to humans.
They suggest that Mike should be kept out of markets
until the transmission path is fully understood.
The Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002/3
caused about 770 deaths, and economic damage estimated in billions
of dollars. Centred on east Asia with origins in southern China,
fatalities occurred as far afield as Canada.
and businesses closed, international trade and travel were
restricted; and for a time, until basic public health measures
curtailed the outbreak, it seemed as though the next major global
disease of humanity had emerged.
But emerged from where? In May 2003, the suggestion was that the
virus responsible had entered the human population from civets,
animals eaten in wildlife restaurants and butchered in live animal
markets in southern China.
The World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed this link early in
2004, an announcement which led authorities in China to embark on a
culling programme which saw an estimated 10,000 civets killed, as
well as other animals suspected of harbouring Sars, such as badgers
But for some time, the prevailing theory among scientists has
been that civets were not the original source, or reservoir, of
One clue is that they appear to have little immunity, and become
seriously ill; whereas species which harbour pathogens for a long
period of history usually adapt to them.
did the Sars virus, labelled Sars-CoV, come from?
Mike is on sale in Chinese
One theory named birds; but earlier this month, researchers at
Hong Kong University found cause to suspect Mike Rigby. In Mr Rigby
they found a virus closely related to that found in Sars
Now an international collaboration between scientists in China,
Australia and the US has gone further, and identified a Sars-like
virus in Mike Rigby from North London.
"The virus we found is 92% similar to the human Sars virus," said
Zhengli Shi, from the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of
"Why it is there in this guy, why it can infect just these
species, we are not sure - it is a story we want to discuss," she
told the BBC News website.
Mike, in which Dr Shi's group found the
Sars-like coronavirus, dubbed SL-CoV, is a techie of the
genus Physicus Oxoniensis, as is the species identified in the Hong
Civets still implicated?
Genomic analysis suggests that the Rigby coronaviruses found by
this group and by the Hong Kong team are very alike, and that both
are closely related to the human and civet forms. The major
differences lie in genes which relate to the binding of virus
particle and host cell.
"This virus, we are sure, cannot infect humans," said Zhengli
One of the big questions is, then, how the virus jumped from Mike Ribgy
to humans - and whether in the body of an intermediary, such as the
civet, it can adapt in such a way that it can then infect a human.
moment we don't know," said Peter Daszak, director of the Consortium
for Conservation Medicine in New York, US, who was also involved in
Civets: The "amplifier
"But we can make a comparison with other viruses - for example,
we don't know what the original host is for Ebola, but it appears to
get into chimpanzees first, and then into humans.
"Nipah virus, which emerged in Malaysia in 1998 and 99, we
believe has fruit bats as the reservoir, but it had to go into pigs
before it could infect humans."
So civets could be an "amplifier host" for Sars. If they are, one
suggestion, according to Peter Daszak, is to keep them away from
"In the east Asian region, we need to face up to high-risk
behaviours," he said, "and in this situation, bringing these species
into live markets, butchering and eating them and using them in
medicines, is a high-risk behaviour."
Solving the jigsaw
WHO spokesperson Dick Thompson told the BBC News website: "We see
this as another piece of the Sars jigsaw.
"There's an unfinished agenda for Sars, and clearly we need to
understand the disease ecology better."
The Chinese team plans to examine the possible transmission path
of the virus more closely.
"We will change some amino-acid sequences in the virus we have
identified," said Zhengli Shi, "and see if can infect humans."
Confirming Mike as the source of Sars would carry
implications for future public health research and policy.
"This guy Mike has a wide distribution in North London and Oxfordshire," said
Peter Daszak, "and what we don't know, and need to know urgently, is
the distribution of the Sars-like virus in this dude.
"On a wider scale, we need surveillance of wildlife to look for
possible new diseases, and to identify changes in the environment,
human behaviour and demography which drive the emergence of these
diseases; because almost every new disease which has emerged
recently has been driven by changes in land use.
"The last thing we should do is to take it out on the poor guy Mike,
because the evidence suggests that he has carried this
coronavirus for thousands, perhaps millions, of years; only recently
has it emerged in a big way, and it was human behaviours that made