“It’s a delicacy, for special occasions,” said Sambourou Diop, a Gabonese national living in the region, who sampled bush meat in his West African homeland but has not eaten it here.
For the nation’s disease detectives, though, bloody bags of wild meat could mean big trouble. They’re worried about exotic viruses causing a deadly outbreak — or, in the worst case, an AIDS-like pandemic.
That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched an expanded effort to test confiscated bush meat for potentially dangerous viruses after a two-year pilot study.
After all, the virus that causes AIDS jumped from chimpanzees to humans at least three times early in the 20th century, sparking a worldwide crisis that has killed at least 25 million people. And in 2003, an unknown virus leapt from bats to civet cats to people in southwest China. The virus then spread to 29 countries and killed at least 774 people. It was dubbed SARS, for severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Infectious-disease experts are convinced those two viruses moved into humans via the butchering, handling and eating of infected meat. And they’re all but certain that other scary viruses lurk in the world’s wildlife.
“We’re in the dark with risks,” said Kristine Smith of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. “We know there are risks out there, but we aren’t able to quantify them.”
Beginning in 2008, Smith, a wildlife health expert, aided the CDC on a pilot project to test bush meat confiscated at Dulles International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and airports in Houston and Atlanta.
The effort netted heads, arms and other pieces of two chimpanzees (members of an endangered species), seven monkeys and 35 rodents, mostly giant cane rats. It is illegal to bring any of those animals into the United States.
Also found were three exotic viruses, although they do not appear dangerous to humans. Two of the viruses are in the same broad family as the viruses that cause herpes in humans. The third virus, simian foamy virus, was found in seven monkeys and one of the chimpanzees. That virus has been on CDC’s radar for a few years because, like HIV, it is a retrovirus. It insinuates itself into the host’s DNA, where it persists, perhaps for a lifetime.
To date, there are no signs that simian foamy virus makes people sick, the CDC’s William Switzer said. But the agency has estimated there are 130 people infected with it worldwide. The agency is tracking only about 15 of those cases. Most are laboratory or zoo workers who handled monkeys and apes, or blood or tissue from the primates.
“We’re looking at whether these viruses are transmissible to close contacts, spouses, children, and so on,” Switzer said.