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April 14, 2003

Unmentionable Cuisine The genetic sequence

Unmentionable Cuisine

The genetic sequence of the corona virus that causes SARS has been decoded by scientists at a Canadian lab, but it does not appear to be closely related to the three previously known groups of coronaviruses. The CDC has confirmed this*, calling the newly named Urbani strain "distinct from all previously recognized coronaviruses...", further stating that "sequence studies are not likely to identify a source for this novel coronavirus."

What the second quote basically says is that the CDC doesn't expect that finding the natural reservoir of the urbani coronavirus will be easy or straightforward. In the animal kingdom coronaviruses are found in cows, pigs, dogs, cats, rodents (rats and mice), humans and possibly rabbits.** Birds are the only other known source, with ducks, turkeys, and chickens all known to carry Coronaviridae viruses. The closely related genus of toroviruses is found in horses, where it causes diarrhea.*** Indeed, before the SARS coronavirus was sequenced, the most likely vector of transmission was considered to be along the lines of duck to pig to human.

Even before the results of the Canadian sequencing rendered the point moot, the hypothesis of a duck-pig-human infection route was in trouble, as the current earliest known case of SARS, the zero case, was a government administrator with little or no contact with domestic animals rather than the farm worker one would expect to find if SARS had been transmitted along that or a similar route. Of course, the urbani coronavirus could still have been transferred to a human host from an animal--via lunch, for instance.

Even if eating infected flesh was the original route of transmission, locating the virus reservoir doesn't become any easier for the epidemiologists looking for it. Chinese cuisine is known for its liberal use of whatever happens to be at hand, and the Cantonese style predominant in the province where the virus originated is considered an extreme example of that practice. Take locusts, for instance. People in Guangdong Province eat lots of locusts. People in Guangdong Province have a reputation

The People's Daily, China's ruling Communist Party organ, Tuesday criticized the Cantonese in southern Guangdong province, saying their propensity to eat anything was no mark of a civilized society.

"The big issue facing us is how to become a civilized people quickly with a fast developing economy," it said. "The saying 'Cantonese dare to eat anything' is no praise for the Cantonese."
"It is a warning for rare birds and animals not to go to Guangdong," the report said.

The Chinese joke that if an alien were captured in China, the Shanghainese would dissect for medical research, Beijingers would send it to the museum as an educational exhibit while the Cantonese would ask "which part of this creature can be braised in brown sauce?"

Speaking of locusts, insects could also be a vector, and though coronaviruses have not been found in the class Insecta, there's no reason to think they could not be. Coronavirus particles mature in a cellular structure known as the Golgi apparatus, which is just as much a part of an insectile cell as it is a human one.

At least one current SARS hypothesis takes the possibility of an insect transmission vector into account, as some Chinese health authorities believe that in addition to normal airborne transmission of SARS, cockroaches may have carried the SARS virus from room to room in a Hong Kong apartment building.

This is the point where the naturalists and amateur entomologists shout "A-HA!" and everybody else looks around and wonders what's gotten into the geeks.

Cockroaches and locusts are related, you see, both being members of the Insect order Orthoptera, along with grasshoppers, and if one can carry the virus, then the other likely can as well.

Cockroaches are certainly ubiquitous enough to be the original source of SARS, especially in urban environment, though their very ubiquity begs the question of why there wasn't a larger outbreak to begin with. They are also known carriers of other diseases, so efforts at avoiding or controlling them are just as ubiquitous. Locusts, on the other hand, are a food item, and there were a number of large locust hatches all over China in the months prior to the first SARS case in November. Some provinces even flew in ducks in an attempt to control them, on the theory that the ducks would eat the locusts, then the people would eat the ducks.

And ducks, as we all know, are filthy with coronaviruses. You are what you eat, as the aged cliche tells us.

Now, odds are against locusts, or even cockroaches for that matter, being the original host of the SARS coronavirus. The odds are against any organism in particular being the original host, yet we know that that despite the odds there must be a host out there somewhere, and since the structure of this particular coronavirus is new to science, it almost certainly comes from a source not previously considered. It wouldn't hurt to look for coronaviruses in locusts, especially considering the temporal and gustational proximities they occupy to the November SARS cases, if only to rule them out.

Notes from Zod

*Sadly, I was unable to find even one occurrence of "gattaca" in the Nucleotide sequence of the urbani coronavirus, though it does appear in the sequence for the coronavirus that causes Avian infectious bronchitis.

**Cheap Korean animations studios have started to lay off personnel as Bugs Bunny, Roger and Jessica Rabbit, Porky and Petunia Pig, Sylvester, Daffy Duck, Tom, Jerry, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto, Foghorn Leghorn, Speedy Gonzales, Scooby Doo and Elsie the Cow have all gone into hiding. Scrappy Doo has been airdropped into Hong Kong, where he was last seen being sneezed on by Hong Kong Phooey. Sagwa and her family are missing and presumed delicious.

***There's a virgin market out there just waiting for a talented entrepreneur to exploit it.

Addendum: Because I am nothing if not anal, A Chinese locust recipe, from Unmentionable Cuisine, of course.

Fried Locust - Remove the wings, the small legs, and the distal portion of the hind legs. Pull off the head, withdrawing any attached viscera. Fry prepared locusts in sesame oil until they are crisp. Serve and eat like roasted nuts.

Posted by Bigwig at April 14, 2003 05:02 PM | TrackBack
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