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Scientists in U.S., Canada Find Complete SARS Virus Genome

By Thomas H. Maugh II
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- U.S. and Canadian researchers have independently deciphered the complete genetic blueprint of the coronavirus now believed to be the cause of the mysterious pneumonialike illness known as SARS. But to their immense disappointment, the structure has yielded no clues about the virus’s origin.

The new virus “is distinct from all other known coronaviruses, both animal and human,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is not similar enough to any known species to draw any conclusions about its origin.”

The rapid identification and blueprinting of the virus is “a scientific achievement that has never been paralleled in our history,” Gerberding said.

“You have to remember that it was only on March 13 that this disease was recognized,” added Dr. Marco Marra of the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre in British Columbia, where the blueprint was announced Sunday. “It’s breathtaking to see how quickly this virus was recognized and sequenced.”

The CDC announced its sequence of the coronavirus Monday and the two blueprints, researchers said, were virtually identical.

Deciphering the virus’s genome is expected to improve the quality of diagnostic tests for recognizing the presence of the virus and might eventually lead to the development of a treatment for the disease. The discovery should also provide “genetic clues as to why this normally harmless family of viruses, which usually produces only very mild infections in humans, is producing such severe injury to the lung,” Marra said.

But researchers said the feat is unlikely to have any other immediate effect on controlling the spread of the disease . In particular, it will not speed the effort to develop an animal model of the disease or a vaccine.

Researchers had hoped that the blueprint of the virus would reveal one or more animal-linked genes that would identify the species in which the new virus emerged before it jumped to humans. Now, Gerberding said, researchers will be forced to rely on “old-fashioned shoe-leather epidemiology” to identify the source.