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China dinner delicacies succumb to SARS scare

Sun Foreign Staff

GUANGZHOU, China - Deng Deliu couldn't believe it when the government came for his pheasants.

It had been a lazy morning at the animal markets, with only a few shoppers perusing the snakes, turtles, rabbits, cats, dogs, badgers, ducks, geese, frogs, pigeons and hedgehogs crammed into cages. For lack of buyers, kept away by fear of SARS, the sellers played cards and mah-jongg and watched Chinese soap operas on television as the animals squirmed, clawed and quacked.

Deng was trying to sell his prized ring-necked rooster pheasants, striking for their multihued coats, for $4 a head. Then the wildlife conservation officers arrived.

Acting on new orders restricting the sale of wild animals in an effort to curb the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the officers seized most of the pheasants, hauling them away for testing. In effect, the government and SARS took away Deng's livelihood, too, as Chinese officials and civilians begin to see long-held customs through new, more fearful eyes.

"We suspect the virus came from animals," said the masked inspector Chen Lizheng as workers loaded cages on a truck. "So we forbid them selling wild animals."

Deng protested that his pheasants were farm-bred and should not be carted away, but his birds were already aboard the inspector's truck.

In southern China, where people have had a centuries-old carnivorous love affair with wild animals, the question of whether SARS might have come from animals is not simply academic. The disease, which emerged here in November, has disrupted eating habits and provoked scrutiny of unsanitary farming practices.

It has also forced Chinese to wonder whether, as many scientists have long believed, there may be something about southern China and animals that makes it a wellspring for disease.

"The relationship between human beings and animals is closer here than anywhere else" in China, said Xie Jinkui, a doctor in the mountain city of Heyuan who treated early victims, including Deng Tianlong, who contracted SARS in December after coming here to buy animals for her local market.

"People here like to eat wild animals," Xie said, "and therefore there are more people who prepare them, who cook them, who raise them, who sell them, who eat them. So, there are many more chances to catch disease."

From whence it came

The long chain of animal-human contact makes it difficult to pinpoint when and where the disease might have crossed from animals to humans, before spreading via buses, trains, boats and planes to the rest of China and 29 other countries, killing 573 people and infecting 7,548 worldwide.

Did the virus migrate from poultry with weak immune systems to pigs to humans on unsanitary farms, as some scientists initially theorized? Or did people catch it from handling or eating infected wild animals, as an increasing number of experts now suggest?

"If this was an animal that was common, if it was livestock or poultry - there are millions and millions of birds here in South China - if it was a food that was farmed and commonly eaten, I think you might expect a lot more cases that you could directly relate to animals of that sort," said Meirion Evans, a medical epidemiologist and member of a World Health Organization team that will conclude a visit to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, today "And you would likely also expect ... die-offs in those types of animals."

In a broad search for clues to the virus' origins, the WHO team pored over early patient data with scientists from the Guangdong Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and asked health officials for any information about unusual die-offs of animals.

A team member visited the live animal, or "wet" markets, Evans said, "to get an impression of the kinds of animals available for sale." But Evans said the source of SARS may prove to be as elusive as that of the deadly Ebola virus, whose precise origin has never been found.

"The possibilities are endless," Evans said. "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's very difficult. You could spend a lot of time and energy and get nowhere."

That leaves, for now, guesswork based on tantalizing clues: At a secret provincial conference in Guangzhou in early March, officials from across Guangdong province reported an unusual number of cases of sick chefs and market vendors, a Chinese source said on condition of anonymity. An earlier WHO team that visited the province found that the number of chefs or food preparers reported to have SARS appeared to be about 5 percent above the norm. But the epidemiologists have since found that the figure actually was drawn from a broader cross-section of jobs and thus might not be statistically significant.

Wild and weird

More intriguing, recent government orders seem to focus on the threat posed by wild animals rather than livestock; Evans is leaning in that direction as well. The coronavirus that causes SARS looks quite different from the coronavirus strains found in pigs and poultry, and points away from a staple food source.

In Heyuan, the first victim was a chef working in Shenzhen who became ill in December and infected others in both cities. The world's first known case was that in November of a village chief in the industrial and fish-farming city of Foshan, which borders Guangzhou.

But international health experts suspect there were earlier, unknown cases. A few scientists wonder whether Guangdong's neighboring province to the west, Guangxi, might be the source of SARS.

"There are a lot of wild animals caught in Guangxi and taken to Guangdong, all kinds of weird animals," said WHO spokeswoman Mangai Balasegaram.

Chinese officials continue to be less than forthcoming about their theories and research on the early development of SARS. In what is becoming a familiar pattern, the lack of disclosure has left a vacuum filled by rumors and fear. Residents of Guangdong province alternately are convinced that ducks, pheasants, snakes or badgers are the source of the virus.

"This theory has hit our business really hard," said Chen Yaodong, husband of Deng, the woman Xie treated in Heyuan. Restaurant workers used to come by his office every day to buy badgers at $120 apiece to serve to local businessmen and officials. Now, a bored Chen sits and stares at a row of mostly empty cages, save for a pair of unhappy-looking badgers, one brown and one black, that have been lying in the same cramped confines for almost a week.

"No one dares to eat those animals," Chen said. "Only officials are invited to eat those animals, and now the officials don't dare to eat them, and they don't dare to be seen eating them."

It is an amazing turnaround for a region known in China for its taste for wild animals. Tradition dictates that wild animals are more nutritious - the rarer the better - and that certain animal parts convey particular health benefits, in some cases for the corresponding human body part. Monkey brains, for example, are said to make the eater smarter; sex organs of deer, tigers, seals and other animals are said to help boost virility or cure infertility.

But with endangered or threatened species often finding their way onto menus, the practice has come under increasing fire from inside and outside China, in addition to drawing criticism from Chinese who consider eating wildlife an uncivilized relic of another age. SARS has given a boost to advocates of a nationwide ban on the eating of wildlife.

"Even if SARS did not come from wild animals this time, we should still forbid eating them, because there are numerous different kinds of viruses in wildlife," said Chu Yu-lin, a Hong Kong delegate to the National People's Congress who proposed a ban. "For instance, people like to eat snake gallbladder, but there are many microbes in snake bile that people are unaware of. It's not like domestic animals that have lived close to humans for tens of thousands of years."

Domestic problems

Some Guangdong residents fear that SARS came from pigs or poultry, an early theory of scientists who have long viewed southern China's farms as a potent incubator for new viruses.

Although WHO investigators lean toward the theory that the virus sprang from wild animals, they cannot rule out the possibility that it came from domestic animals in rural areas where no health monitoring system exists, hospitals are unaffordable and early cases may have gone undetected.

But even if SARS did not jump from farm animals to humans, scientists say, the next deadly virus might. Many of the flu pandemics, including Asian flu in 1957 and Hong Kong flu in 1968, were passed from birds to pigs to humans, with subtle genetic changes along the way. Richard Webby, an influenza researcher at St. Jude Children's Research Center in Memphis, said most flu strains originated in migratory shorebirds that could not infect humans directly.

Perhaps after touching the droppings of infected birds, pigs became infected and provided a sort of genetic stewpot where the bug could mix with other viruses and undergo a genetic change that enabled it to infect humans, Webby said.

It is not difficult to envision that sort of viral stew coming together at farmhouses like the long, narrow, darkened shack that Zheng Haocai and her husband cobbled together out of aluminum, lumber, tarpaper and plastic sheeting. Here, just south of Guangzhou, Zheng is unable to afford feed for her pigs, so they eat factory and restaurant garbage, served out of blue plastic barrels of unidentifiable dark sludge that she buys for $2.50 a barrel.

At feeding time, her chickens join the feast, pecking near the porkers and, in the end stall, among a handful of pigs set apart from the others. This small group, Zheng said, had recovered from a strange virus that struck dozens of her pigs with flu and diarrhea a few months ago.

"This year we've had a lot of pigs get sick, and even when I give them medicine, they don't get better," she said.

A few feet from the pen lies an open box filled with empty syringes, used medicine bottles and torn packets of fever remedies that Zheng used with little success. Out of a group of 80 pigs she bought this year, she said, half died. "They got fever and didn't want to eat."

The kind of feed she uses was banned in recent weeks by local officials, farmers said, though it is unclear whether the ban is intended to clean up the farms or merely to prevent farmers from traveling to Guangzhou to buy the leftovers. But with so many pigs dying off, Zheng has lost money this year and can't afford to change her feeding practices.

The farms here seem to face haphazard regulation at best. Regulators might never knock on the door of a poor farmer's teetering shack. Certainly, no government officials have come by the Zhengs' farm.

For now, the extent to which the government is investigating an animal-SARS connection in Guangdong and how effective those efforts will be is unclear. More expensive dinner choices, such as pangolins and macaques, have become more difficult to find at Guangdong's wet markets and restaurants, but many animals supposedly banned under new regulations, including snakes, badgers and most species of frogs, are still available.

Healthy skepticism

With no animal singled out as a possible source of SARS, health experts doubt the wisdom of seizures. Even at the moment Deng's pheasants were being hauled away to a mountain quarantine facility, local officials charged with regulating the markets quietly expressed skepticism among themselves.

"It's not possible, because the farmer who raised the animals, the driver who transported them, the market men who sell them, the butchers who kill and clean them, we who check them, then the restaurant people who sell them and the people who buy and eat them - not many of these people have gotten sick," said Fang Yaoyuan of the market area's animal-control office.

In his view, the testing of animals satisfies the demands of a world looking for answers.

"No cause has been found, so that's why it's necessary to check every possibility, so then we can communicate with the international community."

Sun staff writer Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

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