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One year on, animals still traded

Experts say SARS could resurface this winter

China says its new SARS reporting system has gone into operation.
China says its new SARS reporting system has gone into operation.

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Almost a year has passed since the first case of SARS, and China believes it is better prepared to deal with another outbreak of the virus.
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Experts now believe the SARS virus is rooted in Chinese animal markets. CNN's Mike Chinoy reports (Contains graphic images).
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World Health Organization (WHO)

GUANGZHOU, China (CNN) -- It is mid-morning and workers are unloading cages packed with dogs and cats, rabbits and badgers at Zhengcha animal market in Guangzhou city in southern China's Guangdong province.

It is a smelly and depressing place. It is the kind of place where, experts believe, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, may have jumped from animals to humans.

It is a place where one can find an astonishing variety of creatures -- all destined for the dinner tables as culinary delicacies in this part of the country.

A year ago several cities in Guangdong province were hit by an outbreak of atypical pneumonia.

At the time, medical workers had no idea that they were dealing with a new type of coronavirus that would eventually infect more than 8,000 people in over 25 countries and kill more than 750.

Nobody in this part of China then suspected the virus might have come from the animals sold in the market. It then spread to the nation's northern part, crept over the border into neighboring Hong Kong and traveled around the world.

At the height of the SARS epidemic in last spring, the Chinese government banned the sale of wild animals in the markets.

But in August, a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the global outbreak was contained, the government lifted the ban, drawing criticism both in China and abroad.

When CNN tried to get a closer look at the animals, the traders hid them away and the market officials ordered to stop taping and leave.

Obviously they are very sensitive about the fact that traders are still selling the masked palm civet, an animal that many researchers believe was the source of the SARS virus.

The sale of farm-raised civets is legal in Guanzhou, but selling those captures in the wild is not, although CNN has spotted many civets without a limb, making it likely the animals were caught illegally in leg hole traps.

"Clearly they know they're operating an illegal industry," Jill Robinson from Animals Asia told CNN. "They don't want us to have evidence to show the government."

Animal rights activist Robinson has been monitoring conditions in markets like this for years.

"Hygiene in this market is non-existent. This place is just a melting pot of misery and disease," she said.

With still no vaccine available and many unknown factors surrounding the disease, SARS could resurface this winter.

Civet cats are still illegally traded in China's animal markets.
Civet cats are still illegally traded in China's animal markets.

Last month Beijing unveiled a new anti-SARS taskforce aimed at preventing any further outbreaks, and officials said hospitals and specialist clinics began an intensive series of exercises in preventing and handling the disease.

However, the traders in the animal market seem utterly unconcerned.

"SARS doesn't come from animals," one woman told CNN. "People say it comes from a foreign country's germ warfare program."

Ignorance, filth, and official regulations that appear not to be enforced -- all are the ingredients for what medical experts in several countries fear could be a possible return of SARS.

CNN's Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.

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