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Researcher may have contracted virus carried by monkeys

It’s the stuff of doomsday movies: A new virus jumps from animals to people, with ominous possibilities.

At the California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, last year, a newly identified form of virus devastated a monkey colony and sickened a researcher, who likely carried it outside the facility, officials said.

The incident revealed Friday at a meeting of infectious disease specialists in Canada apparently went no further. The researcher recovered, and investigators did not find any others who were infected, said Nicholas Lerche, the Davis primate center’s chief veterinarian and associate director.

Could it have been worse?

"Don’t panic, but be concerned," said Greg Gray, an expert on the spread of infectious diseases from animals to humans at the University of Florida.

Here’s what happened:

Starting in May 2009, about two dozen titi monkeys, small primates from South America, were attacked by an infection that killed 19 of them despite intensive veterinary care, Lerche said.

A researcher who worked with the monkeys developed symptoms that included a fever, dry cough and chest pain. The person was sick for several weeks but never sought medical attention, he said.

Later the researcher tested positive for antibodies that indicated the person had contracted the same virus as the monkeys, Lerche said. No one else at the center or at the researcher’s home had the virus, he said.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, examined the virus and determined it was a previously unidentified type of adenovirus.

Adenoviruses cause a variety of diseases, including respiratory infections, gastroenteritis, pinkeye, hepatitis and pneumonia.

"To our knowledge, this is the first example of a cross-species transmission event from adenovirus infection," wrote UCSF scientist Charles Chiu in a report he gave Friday to the Infectious Diseases Society of America at the group’s annual meeting, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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