- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

A top World Health Organization scientist says supplies at blood banks in China should be tested for SARS antibodies to learn whether people have been exposed to a similar virus in the past.

“It’s important for us to learn about how long this virus has been around,” said WHO virologist Klaus Stohr during a daylong SARS brainstorming and briefing session held by the National Institutes of Health on Friday.

Dr. Stohr said the tests also would help scientists learn whether people can be exposed to SARS and have evidence of it in their systems but never develop classic symptoms.

Friday’s conference included scientists from around the world who are determining what research should be done to combat the pneumonialike severe acute respiratory syndrome. Discussions included vaccine and antiviral developments, and the importance of studying whether certain races are more susceptible to SARS and why children appear to get a milder form of the virus.

SARS has infected more than 8,000 worldwide, mostly in Asia. It is a new form of the coronavirus thought to have originated in China’s Guangdong province.

The desire to examine blood for antibodies stems in part from the discovery of SARS antibodies found recently in Guangdong market workers, who handle the animals sold there. Earlier in May, two species of wild animals sold as delicacies at that market tested positive for a virus nearly identical to SARS, indicating that it might have jumped from animals to humans.

Dr. Stohr said the five workers who had the antibodies had not been sick with SARS symptoms. Antibodies are produced by the body to fight off a particular illness.

Researchers said SARS antibodies in their blood could mean that as they were exposed to low doses of the virus through handling the animals they mounted an immune response to defeat it with few or no symptoms and never knew they had it.

This could mean that other people in China could also have been exposed to a SARS-like virus through these or other animals and have antibodies in their systems. Dr. Stohr said WHO has talked to China about the importance of studying this, but no such studies have been done.

Gwendolyn Zahner, an epidemiologist working at the Beijing Genomics Institute, said it would be difficult to test blood in China because donors are few. Those who do donate are usually poor farmers.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a more promising group to look at for vaccine development is people who have recovered from full-blown SARS, not animal-handlers. The fight mounted in their systems could prove useful in developing vaccines to ward off the virus, he said, noting that researchers are lucky that the majority of SARS patients recover and can be studied.

Meanwhile, several scientists at the conference stressed the importance of studying why children with SARS fare much better than adults do.

“This is an area that deserves special attention,” said Robert Webster, a virologist from the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “There’s a secret here.”


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