African Bushmeat Is Ebola's Back Door to America
While the focus remains on the passengers of trans-Atlantic flights, there is an additional risk—all but ignored by the popular press and public—lurking in the cargo hold below: bushmeat contaminated with the Ebola virus and smuggled into the U.S. in luggage.
Three other agencies are responsible for enforcing import restrictions, according to the FWS: “Bushmeat as meat is also regulated on import by the Food and Drug Administration (from a human health perspective), Centers for Disease Control (from a human health and primate perspective) and USDA (from an agricultural perspective concerned with animal diseases).” Customs, which works under the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for coordinating these four agencies. The inadequate enforcement could be a function of this diffusion of responsibility, or there might be “questions about what exactly is legal and what is not,” says Blom. In other words, customs agents may simply not recognize what they are looking at when encountering bushmeat.
“Just under 50 percent of Ebola outbreaks have been due to known handling of primate, great ape carcasses,” says Michael Jarvis, a virology and immunology expert at Britain’s Plymouth University.
In a 2012 study, researchers working with government officials at John F. Kennedy Airport in the borough of Queens, New York (and some smaller airports) tested confiscated bushmeat, including baboon, chimpanzee, mangabey, guenon, green monkey and cane rat. They found that the meat does not arrive alone; it carries with it many unseen microorganisms.
Epidemiologists believe that HIV is a descendent of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which is found in primates like the sooty mangabey, which is indigenous—and hunted—in Western Africa. The virus likely began to infect humans first as SIV, then slowly gained the mutations that led, ultimately, to the shift to HIV.