CBP Seizes Porcupine Quills At Dulles, After CDC Sounds Monkeypox Virus Alert

May 3, 2021

By a Biometrica Staffer

The middle of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic is probably not the time to have to worry about another potential virus outbreak, but that’s exactly what the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) agriculture specialists had to deal with in April, after a U.S. citizen, flying into Dulles Airport from Africa, was found to be carrying potentially virulent porcupine quills.

And yes, that isn’t an error, we did say porcupine quills. In a news release on Friday, April 30, CBP detailed some of this strange story. Apparently, the passenger — who was later released with a warning after the perilous barbs were confiscated — flew in on April 21 and went through a secondary examination after declaring possession of an animal horn. That more thorough exam resulted in the discovery of 100 porcupine quills. On April 22, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in and advised CBP to seize the quills as a potential vector for the monkeypox virus.

Just FYI, on a typical day in 2020, the CBP’s agriculture specialists seized 3,091 prohibited plant, meat, animal byproducts, and soil, and intercepted 250 insect pests at U.S. ports of entry.

What was the 2003 outbreak?

So, in case you’re too young or too zoned out to remember the 2003 U.S. outbreak and are wondering what the heck the monkeypox virus is, well, it’s kind of like smallpox. According to the CDC, in humans, the symptoms of monkeypox are milder than the symptoms of smallpox, but the main difference is that monkeypox causes lymph nodes to swell while smallpox does not. In Africa, monkeypox has been shown to cause death in as many as 10% of persons who contract the disease. There was even an outbreak just last year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In fact, unfortunately, the DRC’s relationship with monkeypox goes back 40 years to when the first human case of monkeypox was recorded there, during a drive to eliminate smallpox. According to the CDC, the virus was originally discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research, hence the name.

The 2003 U.S. outbreak — 37 confirmed and 10 probable cases across Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin — was, in fact, the first time human monkeypox was reported outside of Africa.

How was monkeypox virus first introduced into the U.S.?

According to the CDC, investigators concluded that a shipment of animals from Ghana, imported to Texas on April 9, 2003, introduced the U.S. to the horrors of the virus. The shipment contained approximately 800 small mammals representing nine different species, including six species of African rodents, including rope squirrels, tree squirrels, African giant pouched rats, brush-tailed porcupines, dormice, and striped mice. The CDC’s labs found that two African giant pouched rats, nine dormice, and three rope squirrels were infected with the virus. On arrival in the U.S, some of the infected animals were reportedly housed near prairie dogs at an Illinois animal vendor; the dogs were subsequently sold as pets.

Everyone infected had encountered a dog and had either touched a sick animal, received a bite or scratch that broke the skin, or cleaned a cage or touched the bedding of a sick animal.

According to the CDC, virus transmission occurs when a person contracts the virus from an animal, human, or materials contaminated with the virus. The virus enters the body through broken skin (even if not visible), the respiratory tract, or the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth. Human-to-human transmission is thought to occur primarily through large respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets generally cannot travel more than a few feet, so prolonged face-to-face contact is required. 

There is no proven, safe treatment for any infection from the monkeypox virus. The U.S. uses the smallpox vaccine, antivirals, and vaccinia immune globulin (VIG) to contain the virus. Here’s hoping this Dulles encounter has been contained already. We don’t need another virus outbreak of any kind.