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SARS From Space?

British Scientists Offer Alternative Origins of SARS

WebMD Health News

May 23, 2003 -- Could SARS be from space? A group of British scientists is making that case by proposing that the SARS virus may have originated in outer space, fell down to earth, and landed in China where the outbreak began. But most infectious disease experts are sticking to a more conventional explanation for the origins of SARS.

Officials from the World Health Organization and CDC have stated that the previously unknown form of the coronavirus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is believed to have evolved naturally in animals or humans.

But in a letter published in the May 24 issue of The Lancet, scientists say an alternative theory of celestial origin is "conspicuously missing in such explanations."

They argue that bacteria are deposited on the Earth every day, and disease-causing bacteria and viruses may be evolving in outer space parallel to those on Earth. And the researchers say the random nature of epidemics adds credence to their argument.

"New epidemic diseases have a record of abrupt entrances from time to time, and equally abrupt retreats," write Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University in Cardiff, UK, and colleagues. "The patterns of spread of these diseases, as charted by historians are often difficult to explain simply on the basic of endemic infective agents."

But other infectious disease experts say non-cosmic arguments on the origins of SARS are much more convincing based on the evidence so far.

"We have no scientific evidence that SARS or any other infectious disease has dropped off a meteor at this point in time, but we have an open mind," said CDC director Julie Gerberding at a briefing yesterday. "Should we discover any evidence supportive of that, we would let you know."

"I think what we're seeing here is a situation that is most explainable by natural evolution of coronaviruses either from an animal or a poultry source, or possibly a coronavirus that's evolved in a human," says Gerberding. "And we don't know the source of the coronavirus, but we have many hypotheses that are far more plausible than meteorites."

With respect to the SARS outbreak, the British researchers say that at first glance there seems to be enough evidence to support a possible outer space explanation for the origins of SARS.

"First, the virus is unexpectedly novel, and appeared without warning in mainland China. A small amount of the culprit virus introduced into the stratosphere could make a first tentative fall out east of the great mountain range of the Himalayas, where the stratosphere is thinnest, followed by sporadic deposits in neighboring areas," write the researchers.

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