Columbia University Medical Center

Illegal Wildlife Trade Opens New Route for Pathogen Transmission

When researchers confiscated smuggled parcels of African bush meat at five major US airports and screened them for a variety of dangerous pathogens, 20 percent were positive for a known zoonotic infection (simian foamy virus) and/or two herpes viruses (cytomegaloviruses and lymphocryptoviruses). The findings show the potential for disease transmission via illegal trade and the importance of microbial surveillance of wildlife trade.

The report in which the findings appear is the first from a collaboration formed in 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several nongovernmental agencies, including Columbia’s Center for Infection and Immunity (CII), to assess the global public-health risk of illegally shipped wildlife products.

Each year, thousands of wildlife products, including live animals, body parts, and hides, are illegally shipped into the United States. Many originate in countries with endemic plagues such as H5N1 influenza, Nipah virus, and simian retroviruses. In fact, the fictional pandemic in the 2011 Hollywood thriller Contagion was based on actual outbreaks of Nipah virus in Bangladesh and India, where infected bats presumably transmitted the disease to humans by contaminating the local food supply.

The study, “Zoonotic Viruses Associated with Illegally Imported Wildlife Products,” was published on January 10, 2012, in PloS ONE. The CII-affiliated authors are Simon J. Anthony, DPhil; Tracie Seimon, PhD; Maria D. Sanchez, BS; Margot Stuchin, BA; and W. Ian Lipkin, MD.

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