As the death toll from Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome continues to build, experts say the disease is likely to be connected to the mutation of a virus among China’s livestock – specifically, the country’s birds.

Bi Shengli, vice director for viral diseases at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed that the earliest patients had been in close contact with chickens, ducks, pigeons and owls. Chefs and bird vendors were among the first patients to become ill with SARS in China’s Guangdong province.

Scientists are confident that a new type of coronalvirus, related to the virus that causes the common cold, is responsible for SARS.

Arnold Monto, epidemiologist and Bioterrorist Preparedness Initiative director, said that such an explanation of the virus’s origins is entirely in keeping with what scientists already know about how diseases can transfer from animals to humans.

“We know that coronaviruses cause infectious bronchitis in livestock such as pigs, cattle and birds and that it can jump from animals to humans,” Monto said. “But never has there been such a severe coronavirus in humans.”

Many health officials said part of the problem of containing the disease stems from difficulties with accurately identifying it. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed certain technologies for diagnosing the disease, Monto said they are difficult, unreliable and not ready to be widely disseminated.

“We would like to be able to say for sure if you have this particular virus, but we just don’t have that ability right now,” he said.

Monto said he hoped a reliable diagnostic test would soon be available. But he added that antiviral drugs or vaccines to treat the disease would take much longer to develop.

“Part of the problem is getting specimens out of China – that takes a long time,” he said.

Robert Winfield, University Health Services director, emphasized the need to keep the disease under control and out of areas of the world where other diseases, such as AIDS, have already weakened the population.

“The majority of the people who have died of SARS also had some underlying disease,” Winfield said. “If it spreads to underdeveloped countries that are severely crowded like India and Africa, it will be a very serious disaster.”

As of yesterday, the World Health Organization reported 2,671 cases or SARS with 103 deaths from 17 countries. This is a increase of 70 cases and five deaths compared to Monday. One death was in Canada, making the country’s total count 10 deaths out of a cumulative 91 cases.

With Canada located so closely to Michigan, Winfield was particularly concerned with students going there. He said that while Toronto is a popular place to travel, people should not travel there until it is deemed safe again.

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