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Animal-to-Human Organ Transplants
Riskier Than Ever

Group Cites Mounting Evidence of Viral Threats From Pigs and Primates

Evidence mounts, on a weekly basis, that we should not be transplanting virally contaminated animal organs into humans.  Baboons and pigs are still designated organ "donors" for xenotransplants, despite warnings by prominent virologists that they harbor several endogenous retroviruses, some that can infect human cells.  The swine flu of 1918 killed 20 million people worldwide; and both the Asian flu virus of 1957 and the Hong Kong flu virus of 1968 mutated in pigs.

"We could have another AIDS-like epidemic on our hands," says CRT spokesperson Murry Cohen, M.D..  The worldwide spread of HIV infection has been linked to a virus that allegedly jumped from monkeys to humans. "Transplanting organs from baboons and pigs into humans could make AIDS look like a party.  Responsible health authorities would ban xenotransplants outright," says Cohen.  Recent events are cause for alarm:

* Yesterday, the journal Nature reported that researchers discovered a simian foamy virus (SFV) in the bloodstream of four laboratory workers exposed to chimpanzees, baboons, and African green monkeys.  The Centers for Disease Control admits there is a risk of SFV transmission, especially through donated blood.  Virologist Jonathan Allan believes that foamy viruses represent "the greates immediate threat to humans among the known simian retroviruses."  Their pathogenic potential may only become known after they become well established in the human population (Molecular Diagnosis, Vol. 1, No. 3, (September 1996): 211).

* Last month, Australian virologist Peter Kirkland discovered a previously unknown virus in pigs (paramyxovirus) which caused deformities and stillbirths in pigs and infected two piggery workers who developed flu-like symptoms.  Kirkland said there was no guarantee that the virus had been contained.

* In December 1997, a laboratory worker at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta, died after she was splashed with body fluids from a monkey infected with the deadly herpes B virus.

* In September 1997, scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda announced that a previously unrecognized strain of hepatitis E may be circulating in the US pig population, and might explain the high prevalence of hepatitis E antibodies in healthy individuals in the US.

Pigs and primates are likely to carry several unidentified infectious diseases which could infect organ transplant recipients and their contacts. Surveillance systems to guard against infectious diseases are inadequate. The General Accounting Office recently faulted the Food and Drug Administration for failing to track transplant patients who may have received human tissues contaminated with HIV and other viruses.  Can this agency be trusted to monitor animal organ transplants?