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Researchers testing bushmeat smuggled into the U.S. have found strains of a virus in the same family as HIV, according to preliminary findings to be released Wednesday. For years, authorities have tried to crack down on the smuggling of meat from certain animals, such as bats, monkeys and rodents, which some people consider a food delicacy.
In 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society, a nonprofit which runs many of New York City's zoos, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention joined forces to test illegally imported meat entering the New York City area from West Africa for dangerous diseases such as monkey pox, the virus that causes SARS and retroviruses such as HIV. Preliminary findings will be presented at Rockefeller University in New York on Wednesday. Scientists found two strains of simian foamy virus, commonly found in nonhuman primates, from three species—two mangabeys and a chimpanzee—in bushmeat.
The virus can infect humans but hasn't been conclusively linked to known diseases. However, the related simian immunodeficiency virus has been found in bushmeat tested outside of the country and is considered responsible for the first cases of HIV by scientists. Bushmeat, often cured or smoked, has entered the U.S. through the mail and in shipping containers.
Smugglers also resort to packing smoked monkey or cane rat in personal suitcases. A fraction of the bushmeat coming into the New York City area is seized at the border by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hundreds of samples from at least 14 species have been sent to be studied. "We get these big boxes of meat," said Kristine Smith, a wildlife veterinarian who is conducting the study for the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Sometimes you see primate heads or hands in there."
The meat is highly valued in some immigrant communities, notably among West Africans, said Richard Ruggiero, who works on international bushmeat issues for the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is like "any other illegal commodity," Mr. Ruggiero said. "It's a clandestine industry. They sell it in clandestine networks." He added that many of the smuggled meats are from endangered species.