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SARS: Another deadly virus from

the meat industry

by Michael Greger, MD


Animal agriculture is not just a public health hazard for those who consume meat. In fact, the single worst epidemic in recorded world history, the 1918 influenza pandemic, has been blamed on the livestock industry. [1]

In that case, the unnatural density and proximity of ducks and pigs raised for slaughter probably led to the deaths of 20 to 40 million people across the world. [2] Since then, the raising of pigs and poultry has resulted in millions more human deaths from the 1957-58 Asian flu, the 1968-69 Hong Kong flu and the 1977 swine flu. [3]  All of these influenza strains seem to have arisen in the same region of southern China where intensive systems of animal agriculture have become a breeding ground for new killer viruses. [4] 


For centuries, the Guangdong province of China has had the world's largest concentration of humans, pigs and fowl living in close proximity. [5]  In this environment, pigs can become co-infected with both human and avian (bird) strains of influenza.     


When this happens, a deadly gene swapping can take place, in which the lethality of viral strains rampant in the Chinese poultry industry [6] can combine with the human transmissibility of the human strains to create new mutated flu viruses capable of infecting and killing people on a global scale. [7]

Other viral threats besides influenza have also escaped from Southeast Asian livestock operations.  In 1999, a new virus, now known as the Nipah virus, jumped from pigs to humans in Malaysia, infecting pig breeders and killing about a hundred people before it was stamped out. [8]  In Southern Chinese province of Guangdong, battery chickens are sometimes kept directly above pig pens, depositing their waste right into the pigs' food troughs. [9]  It may come as no surprise, then, that Guangdong is thought to have been ground zero for the deadly SARS virus as well. [10]

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus is just the latest in a string of human tragedies traced back to our appetite for animal flesh.

According to the World Health Organization, SARS, which has already infected thousands worldwide, could become the "first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential."[11] And experts are again blaming intensive animal agriculture. [12,13,14,15]  According to China's equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control, the first people to succumb to the SARS virus were bird vendors and chefs, who had been in close and continued contact with chickens, ducks and other birds. [16]

Scientists have identified SARS as a coronavirus, a class of viruses well known to the livestock industry. [17] Coronaviruses are found in many feedlot cattle who die of pneumonia and are responsible for the respiratory disease known as shipping fever in cattle stressed by transport. [18] There's currently a new mutant strain of coronavirus causing outbreaks of a contagious pneumonia on pig farms in several countries. [19]  Preliminary work, though, suggests the SARS virus is more related to the one that causes lung infections in chickens. [20]

The concentration of animals with weakened immune systems in unsanitary conditions seems inherent to factory farming. As intensive livestock operations continue to spread worldwide, so will viral breeding grounds. [21]  Moving away from intensive animal agriculture and towards more sustainable plant-based methods of production may benefit the health of the planet and its inhabitants in more ways than we know.

Dr. Michael Greger is currently traveling the country speaking on a number of important food safety and social justice topics. For more information please visit his website: www.veganMD.org       

[1] Daily GC, Ehrlich PR. Development, Global Change, and theEpidemiological Environment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University; 1995.Paper #0062.
[2] Kiple KF, editor. The Cambridge World History of Human Disease.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1993.
[3] The Straits Times (Singapore) ,Mar 21, 2003.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Time, April 7, 2003.
[6] The Straits Times (Singapore), Mar 21, 2003.[7] Courier Mail (Australia) ,April 12, 2003.
[8] South China Morning Post, April 9, 2003.
[9] Sydney Morning Herald, April 7, 2003
[10] Time, April 7, 2003.
[11] The Atlanta Journal and Constitution,

April 12, 2003.
[12] TB & Outbreaks Week, April 15, 2003.
[13] The Toronto Sun, March 28, 2003.
[14] New Scientist, April 03, 2003.
[15] Courier Mail (Australia), April 12, 2003.
[16] The Michigan Daily, April 09, 2003.
[17] New England Journal of Medicine, April 10, 2003.
[18] Santa Fe New Mexican (New Mexico), April 6, 2003.
[19] Ibid.
[20] New Scientist, April 03, 2003.
[21] Time, April 7, 2003.

! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

Last minute news:   SARS found in 3 more species

   The SARS virus has been detected in three more species sold in Chinese market for human consumption.

brief update on page 2 column 3:   

SARS found in more animals

Testing 25 exotic animals of 8 species on  sale in a Guangdong market, WHO scientists found the virus in 6 masked palm civets, 1 raccoon dog and 1 ferret badger.  The civets, a threatened species, are considered a delicacy  and may have been farmed. 


SARS seems to have started with human food handlers, who kill and prepare animals for eating.  It erupted simultaneously in 6 areas.  It is not known whether the disease transferred from animals to humans or vice versa, but it is another strong indication that keeping animals in confinement can foster lethal diseases as we have seen with BSE, and CWD in ungulates. 

                             Keith Bradsher & Lawrence K Altman in NY Times May 24/03

Spring 03 index                                            CivAb index                                    Spring 03 issue continued       

The Civil Abolitionist

         Spring 2003  v.14  no. 1