Did SARS come from outer space?

May 22, 2003 at 6:40 PM

CARDIFF, England, May 22 (UPI) -- A group of British scientists proposed Thursday the organism that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome might have originated in outer space.

This extraordinary theory, appearing in a letter to the May 24 issue of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, suggests, "if these bugs are coming from space, a scheme to monitor the stratosphere could be important," astronomer Chandra Wickramasinghe, director of the Cardiff Center for Astrobiology, told United Press International.

Other scientists with expertise in either exobiology -- the study of possible alien life forms -- or SARS remained skeptical about Wickramasinghe's bold suggestion.

"It is absurd and unnecessary," biologist John Rummel, NASA's planetary protection officer in Washington, D.C., told UPI. "The chance that anything microbial that is alive can persist in space above the atmosphere, without shielding, is vanishingly small."

More than 8,000 cases and 682 deaths from SARS have been reported in 28 countries since the disease was first recognized last February. Fever, aches and coughing are common symptoms and 10 to 20 percent of patients require mechanical ventilation. About 8 percent die.

A virus related to ones behind the common cold causes the disease, and is thought to be spread by close, lengthy personal contact. "There are lots of things about SARS that raise questions," Wickramasinghe said. It appeared suddenly and "it's only weakly infective, but swept across the whole of China," he explained.

Wickramasinghe and colleagues report that over the past year, they have collected vast amounts of bacteria at heights of more than 25 miles via balloons. They estimate more than a ton of microbes fall to Earth from space daily.

Citing the unexpected appearance and unusual pattern of spread of the virus, Wickramasinghe and colleagues write, "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."

They also theorize that a number of major epidemics, such as the plague of Athens and the great worldwide flu of 1917 to 1919, are unusual in how their infection rates and deaths are not readily explained by current scientific models.

"Life on Earth, including humans, is still profoundly influenced by an extraterrestrial cosmic system of life. It also then gives an extra impetus to the theory known as panspermia, which asserts that life did not start here on the Earth, but came from space via comets," Wickramasinghe added. "If so, the process must continue even to the present day."

However, SARS researcher Edison Liu, executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore, found "so much of this hypothesis is without scientific basis. In addition, the authors display a seeming lack of basic microbiology and epidemiology."

For instance, Liu noted, "viruses do not survive well outside their host organisms, especially since a potent method of inactivating a virus is by ultraviolet light, of which there are significant levels at high altitudes."

Rummel noted the bacteria that Wickramasinghe and his team collected are well-known on Earth. He added "there are plenty of precedents for viral mutation and for human association with other species and their viruses leading to epidemic diseases in our populations without recourse to 'a space incidence' of the virus."

Most SARS researchers suspect the virus jumped to humans from animals. Regarding the flu, Liu said major epidemics were caused in part by animal flu strains. "It does not require an 'X-Files' explanation for their occurrence," he said, referring to the popular television series. "Reports like this raise paranoia unnecessarily."

The bacteria Wickramasinghe's team collected and cultured "are (completely identical) to Bacillus simplex and (99.9 percent identical) to Staphylococcus pasteuri, common terrestrial bacteria," Rummel said. In addition, a fungus was isolated and identified as Engyodontium album, a known terrestrial fungus. Although the authors "suggest that the most likely source of these organisms is from space ... they do not address the most likely source -- that they were carried aloft from the ground or lower atmosphere by the balloon itself."

(Reported by Charles Choi, UPI Science News, in New York)

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