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Saint Louis Zoo scientist studies ties between animal, human infections

This type of research can help prevent outbreaks of diseases, like coronavirus

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis is more than 7,000 miles from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic.

Despite the distance, researchers at the Saint Louis Zoo are working on how to prevent these outbreaks. 

"For the last eight years, much of our research is looking at these viruses," said Sharon Deem, Director for the Saint Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine.

The current scare is for Covid-19, the Wuhan coronavirus. 

"This particular virus has spilled over from non-human animals and that happens a lot," Deem explained. "This has happened a number of times before."

SARS, MERS and the current coronavirus are all examples of diseases that are transmitted between humans and animals.

"The more we mix with these animals, the more potential there is to have these spillovers," Deem said. "So, exotic pets, exotic animals as food, that all gives a way for these viruses to spill over."

The Midwest may seem far from exotic, but plants and animals from all over the world are here in St. Louis. 

"The food you eat may come from 20 different countries," Deem said. 

She believes by understanding where your food comes from and how humans interact with animals, epidemics like coronavirus can be prevented. 

"We can prevent things and spillover by doing things such as not having wet markets," she said. "By not bringing all these species together, not carrying these animals from one place to another and then mixing them together."

Deem's lab is an exhibit at the Saint Louis Zoo. It's located behind River's Edge in the Animal Nutrition Center. 

To learn more about the St. Louis Zoo Institute for Conservation Medicine visit its website.

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