Viruses found in confiscated primate meat

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Samples of primate meat confiscated at U.S. airports contained viruses that can cause disease in humans, according to a recent scientific report. 

However, the samples were stored in a lysis buffer before testing, preventing the researchers from determining whether these viruses were viable.

Dr. William B. Karesh, who is one of the report authors and the executive vice president for health and policy for EcoHealth Alliance, said the pilot study related to the report showed that illegally imported animal products in airline passenger luggage and postal shipments could provide routes for viruses to enter the U.S. The report indicates the study succeeded in establishing surveillance methods for detecting and identifying zoonotic organisms and for identifying the species of origin for confiscated wildlife products.

The report, “Zoonotic viruses associated with illegally imported wildlife products,” was published in January (PloS One 2012;7:e29505). The authors examined samples from wild primate and rodent products seized by employees of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service between 2006 and 2010 at international airports in New York, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

“Illegally imported shipments were confiscated opportunistically and thus the pilot study established only the presence and not the prevalence of zoonotic agents in the specimens,” the report states.

Hundreds of thousands of meats and other animal products are seized at U.S. entry ports annually.

For example, more than 46,000 meat products and animal byproducts were confiscated from passenger and crew baggage at six airports in New York and New Jersey alone during the past fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, according to information provided by Customs and Border Protection. Most of those items were confiscated at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which was one of the sources of samples in the recent study, and at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Dr. Karesh was among researchers who looked for leptospiral organisms, anthrax, herpesviruses, filoviruses, paramyxoviruses, coronaviruses, flaviviruses, and orthopoxviruses in samples taken from what are believed to be tissues from 25 primates and 35 rodents.

Simian foamy virus sequences were identified in tissues of a green monkey and three baboons from Guinea, two sooty mangabeys from Liberia, and one chimpanzee from Nigeria, the report states. Two genera of herpesviruses—cytomegaloviruses and lymphocryptoviruses —were found in tissues of four green monkeys and three baboons from Guinea, a greater white-nosed monkey from Nigeria, and a sooty mangabey from Liberia.

“The restricted number of samples included in this study were tested for a limited range of pathogens only and thus presence of additional pathogens not included in this study cannot be ruled out,” the report states.

None of the targeted viruses were discovered in tests on rodent samples, most of which were from or suspected to be from cane rats.

The pilot study also didn’t target any viruses that cause disease in livestock, although Dr. Karesh said his organization has discussed such testing with the Department of Agriculture.

Increasing numbers of animal products are being brought into the U.S. as international travel increases, Dr. Karesh said. He sees a continued need to use surveillance to study the presence of disease-causing agents in illegal imports.