Viruses that are potentially harmful to human health have been identified in illegally imported meat from primates, according to a new study.
The illegal products, which include meat from baboons, chimpanzees and rats, were confiscated from five airports throughout the United States, the study said.
The researchers found evidence of retroviruses and herpes viruses in the meat. While it's not clear if these viruses could infect humans through handling of the meat, or if they could spread from one person to another, the findings nevertheless suggest these products have the potential to spread disease to humans, the researchers said.
The study was part of a pilot program to establish methods to survey and test illegally imported meat for diseases. While the study was quite small, the researchers said they hope the effort can be expanded to survey ports of entry throughout the United States and possibly identify more viruses, said study researcher Kristine Smith, associate director for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization that aims to conserve biodiversity.
The study was "a proof of concept to let the government know that the agencies that are responsible for regulating these products need more resources to be able to do this type of testing," Smith said. "We know there are health risks associated with these products," she said.
Wildlife meat and disease
The harvesting of meat from wild animals has in the past led to the emergence of new human diseases. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is thought to have jumped from non-human primates to humans through the butchering and sale of meat from monkeys and chimpanzees. More than 55-million lbs. of wildlife products are thought to enter the United States every year, mainly through New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the researchers said.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulates and confiscates some of these products, "we know we don’t catch it all," Smith said.
The researchers analyzed samples of illegally imported wildlife meat that had been confiscated from airports in New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Houston and Atlanta between 2006 and 2010.
A genetic analysis revealed the meat samples were from 60 animals—35 samples were from rodents, mainly rats, and 25 were from primates, including two from chimpanzees and 10 from baboons.
Thirteen of the primates were found to contain viruses, including simian foamy viruses (a retrovirus), and cytomegalovirus and lymphocryptovirus (types of herpesviruses.)
None of the tested samples contained simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), a virus that is closely related to HIV. In addition, none of the rodent samples were found to contain viruses. However, the researchers tested for a limited number of pathogens, and the samples could harbor dangerous microorganisms that weren't picked up by the tests.
The simian foamy viruses (SFV) found in the meat samples have been known to infect people, mostly after bites from an infected animal. When this happens, the virus stays in the victim, but does not appear to produce any symptoms of disease. The virus is also not easily spread between people.
But researchers have only studied long-term infections with this virus for around 10 years or so. And this type of virus is part of a family of viruses that are typically slow to produce symptoms (such as HIV). That means people infected with SFV might become ill down the road or develop a disease such as cancer that is associated with the infection, Smith said.
"We just don’t know enough about it to be able to dismiss the risk," Smith said.
While it's somewhat reassuring, for now, that the researchers didn't find evidence of some other disease-causing pathogens, such as SIV and anthrax, in the tested samples, Smith said expanded tests of more products would likely reveal more microorganisms to worry about.
"I think with larger numbers of confiscations, we're going to be finding more of these viruses we know exist," Smith said.
Pass it on: Illegally imported meat from wildlife may be a conduit for spreading disease.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.