Evidence of retroviruses and herpes viruses in illegally imported wildlife meat products confiscated at U.S. international airports has been found using new technology known as DNA barcoding. This method uses a short genetic marker in an organism’s DNA to identify it as belonging to a particular species.
DNA barcoding revealed the species of butchered African animals seized at five U.S. airports during a study that aims to establish methods of determining the public health risks from wildlife products being smuggled into the United States.
Some of the seized meat was from endangered and threatened chimpanzees, baboons and monkeys and some was infected with the herpes virus and the HIV-related simian foamy virus.
Dr. Kristine Smith, lead author of the study and associate director for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance, said, “Although the findings to date are from a small pilot study, they remind us of the potential public health risk posed by illegal importation of wildlife products – a risk we hope to better characterize through expanded surveillance at ports of entry around the country.”
The study’s findings were detailed in an article published today in the journal “PLoS ONE” entitled, “Zoonotic Viruses Associated with Illegally Imported Wildlife Products.”
Eight postal shipments confiscated by U.S. Customs officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York from October 2008 to September 2010 were included in this study.
From June 2010 to September 2010, an additional 20 passenger-carried packages confiscated at four other airports – Philadelphia, Washington Dulles, George Bush Intercontinental-Houston, and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International – were sampled for the study.
Samples from approximately 44 animals were included in the study.
Confiscated items included raw to semi-cooked animal parts, identified by American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, Columbia University, and the Wildlife Conservation Society as nonhuman primates, including baboon, chimpanzee, mangabey, guenon and green monkey, as well as cane rat and rat.
Pathogen analysis was conducted at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention and also at Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity.
Among the pathogens identified in the products were a zoonotic retrovirus, simian foamy viruses, and several nonhuman primate herpes viruses.
These results are the first to confirm evidence of pathogens in illegally imported bushmeat that may act as a conduit for pathogen spread, and suggest that implementation of disease surveillance of the illegal wildlife trade will help prevent disease emergence.
“The increase in international travel and trade brings with it an increased risk of unmonitored pathogens via the illegal wildlife trade,” said Dr. Denise McAloose, chief pathologist for the Global Health Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Scientists say nearly 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans originate in animals and the majority originate in wildlife, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak, which was traced to Chinese restaurant workers butchering the cat-like masked palm civet.
“Exotic wildlife pets and bushmeat are Trojan horses that threaten humankind at sites where they are collected in the developing world as well as the U.S. Our study underscores the importance of surveillance at ports, but we must also encourage efforts to reduce demand for products that drive the wildlife trade,” said W. Ian Lipkin of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
The United States is one of the largest consumers of imported wildlife products and wildlife. A previous study by EcoHealth Alliance showed that from 2000-2006 approximately 1.5 billion live wild animals were legally imported into the country, with 90 percent slated for the pet trade.
“It is surely large but the true size of the illegal wildlife trade remains a mere guess given the covert nature of the business,” said DNA barcoding expert Dr. George Amato, director of the American Museum on Natural History’s Center for Conservation Genetics. “While the threat this trade poses to conservation is cause enough for alarm, the intermingling of wildlife, domestic animals and people is a clear threat also to human heath everywhere.”
“Using DNA barcoding to identify species being smuggled at border points is one of the tools needed to address this law-enforcement challenge,” Amato said.
Europe also receives a great deal of smuggled bushmeat. A 2010 study estimated that each week five tons of bushmeat is smuggled in personal luggage into Paris Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport via Air France. Researchers from the UK, France and Cambodia identified 12 species among the seized meat products, much of it dressed and smoked.
Support of detective work at borders is part of an explosion of new applications and discoveries arising from DNA barcoding technology.
The ability to identify and distinguish known and unknown species ever more quickly, cheaply, easily and accurately based on snippets of DNA code grew from a 2003 research paper to a burgeoning global enterprise today, led by the Consortium for the Barcode of Life at the Smithsonian Institution. Some 1.4 million DNA records are now banked, representing more than 115,000 species.