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SARS suspect 'may have new strain'

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BEIJING, China (Reuters) -- A suspected SARS patient in southern China may have caught a new, mutated strain of the deadly virus, a genetics expert researching the case said on Sunday.

Chinese media also speculated the patient, a 32-year-old television producer, might have caught the virus from rats but this has not been confirmed.

"It's definitely a coronavirus, but it's a different strain from the virus last year," Chen Qiuxia of the Guangdong Centre for Disease Prevention and Control told Reuters. "Our gene testing showed the difference."

Chen, ruling out the possibility of contamination in the laboratory skewing the results, said the virus may be a mutation of the coronavirus blamed for the SARS outbreak last year that infected about 8,000 people worldwide and killed almost 800.

The SARS virus belongs to the coronavirus family which also causes the common cold in humans.

Most scientists say flu-like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which first surfaced in southern China in November 2002, is likely to have spread from farms in the region, possibly jumping to humans from animals such as civet cats, ducks, pigs and rats.

A battery of lab tests on the television producer, China's first suspected SARS case since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the world SARS free in July, have been inconclusive.

Roy Wadia, WHO spokesman in Beijing, declined to comment on the possibility the man might have a new strain of SARS, saying the organization had not yet examined Chen's study.

The Beijing Youth Daily, however, quoted an expert from a military medical research institute cautioning that it was too early to say if the man was infected with a mutated version of SARS, and further, more comprehensive gene tests were necessary.

Last week, China reported that a viral gene sequencing test showed a high correlation with the gene sequence of the coronavirus that causes SARS.

The WHO has noted that tiny fragments of a virus gene similar to the SARS pathogen have appeared in a small number of samples.

It says laboratories in Hong Kong running further tests might be able to offer a definitive diagnosis this week.

Chinese media have reported that the patient had contact with rats before he got sick and speculated there may be a link, but Chen said: "So far we still cannot prove that it's related to rats."

The WHO's Wadia said the possible rat connection was something its experts had noted, but it was too early to comment.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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