The government is asking traders not to import civet cats, raccoon dogs or ferret badgers from China after researchers traced the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus to these endangered wild animals.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will set up a team to find out how many masked palm civets have been imported to Japan and whether they carry the SARS coronavirus, officials said.

The ministry told prefectural governments to investigate whether people are raising the animals and to prevent them from touching the animals’ fluids and excretions.

The Infectious Disease Law does not authorize the central government to ban animal imports unless they are clearly linked to a disease, but the ministry plans to revise the law to place a virtual ban on imports of wild animals.

The step is considered necessary because the risk of wild animals passing contagious diseases to humans is rising amid an increase in the number of people in Japan raising such creatures.

The ministry measures came after a World Health Organization official said Friday that research teams in China and Hong Kong have found viruses related to SARS in animals that are sold for human consumption at markets throughout southern China. Some have been sold as pets or used as perfume ingredients in Japan.

The study found several coronavirus closely related genetically to the SARS coronavirus in the masked palm civet and the raccoon dog, and also discovered antibodies to the SARS coronavirus in the Chinese ferret badger, the WHO official said.

The WHO on Friday warned people who come into contact with these animals to take precautions.

According to trade data at the Finance Ministry, imports of predatory animals stood at 725 in the fiscal year that ended in March, but none was from China.

But information suggesting several animals in the predatory category have been imported annually from China prompted the health ministry to seek nationwide surveys.

Masked palm civet cats are mostly found in southern China and Southeast Asia, but records show some have been caught in Japan. These civets are believed to have either escaped or were released after being imported as pets or as raw material for perfumes, the officials said.

They added, however, that civets born in Japan are not subject to its study.

New Toronto warning

The government on Tuesday reinstated its travel warning for Toronto following a fresh outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome due.

The Foreign Ministry urged Japanese nationals to be careful about traveling to the Canadian city, issuing again the lowest warning in the four-scale system.

The government lifted the first advisory May 15.

The move came after the World Health Organization put Toronto back on its list of places where SARS is spreading.

On Sunday, Canadian health authorities said they had confirmed eight new probable cases of SARS in and around Toronto, including two deaths.