In the forests of northern Minnesota, researchers are infiltrating the dens of hibernating black bears, catching deer in nets, and trapping wolves and elk for a quick snout sample, all in an effort to track the spread of the virus. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in wildlife, writes Laura Ungar in a report for the Associated Press.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed how closely intertwined animal and human health are. Although the exact origins of the virus have not been identified, researchers suspect that it may have jumped from bats to humans, directly or through an intermediate animal vector. Although SARS-CoV-2 is known to infect animal species, the Covid-19 pandemic is driven by person-to-person transmission. While current research shows that wildlife does not play a significant role in the spread of the virus to humans, experts are still concerned about the spread of the virus among animal populations, which may facilitate the emergence of new virus variants. .
Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO), together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Organization for Animal Health, formerly the Office International des Epizootics (OIE), published a joint declaration calling on global wildlife agencies to prioritize monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 infections in wildlife to prevent the formation of animal reservoirs. in a warehouse, the virus can mutate and emerge like different strains. So far, domestic animals, big cats, mink, ferrets, North American white-tailed deer, and great apes have been observed to be infected with the virus. According to the statement, cases of farmed mink and domestic hamsters have been shown to be capable of infecting humans with SARS-CoV-2.
“If the virus can establish itself in a wild animal reservoir, it will always be out there threatening to return to the human population,” said Matthew Aliota, an emerging pathogens biologist at the University of Minnesota who is involved in the tracking efforts. in the state, he tells the AP. After taking a swab from the animal’s nose, biologists send the samples to Aliota’s lab in St. Paul, Minnesota. Test results can reveal which animals are getting infected and could transmit the virus to other woodland creatures, such as red foxes and raccoons, the AP reports.
EJ Issac, a fish and wildlife biologist at the reserve that is home to the Grand Portage Ojibwe, tells the AP that he expects the stakes to be higher this spring as the animals awaken from hibernation and mix with other animals and roam different regions. .
Currently, wildlife in at least 24 american states They have contracted the virus. White-tailed deer appear to be an important potential reservoir species. Andrew Marques, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania who co-authored the study, said NPR’s Ari Daniel that the transmission rate is “absolutely staggering when we consider the positivity rate in humans.” (In March, when the study was published, coronavirus rates in a city like Philadelphia were around 3 percent in humans, according to NPR.)
Between September 2020 and January 2021, researchers in Iowa tested 151 wild whitetail deer and 132 captive deer, according to a study published in PNAS in January. Of those, 33 percent tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. During the same period, the United States Department of Agriculture collected 481 samples from deer in Illinois, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, as well as found about a third of those deer they had coronavirus antibodies present in their systems.
Most recently, in the fall and winter of 2021, researchers at Pennsylvania also identified a 20 percent coronavirus positivity rate in deceased whitetail deer that were hunted or involved in vehicle collisions, per npr; both are cases where human-animal interaction is more likely. They were also able to sequence the genome of seven samples and found that the Delta strain was present, marking the first observations of the lineage in deer, according to the study.
A Canadian study published on the preprint server bioRxiv in February of this year, he identified a person who may have contracted a mutated strain of the virus from an infected white-tailed deer, according to the AP. This study is being peer reviewed by an external panel of experts, according to the WHO statement.
“We are encroaching on animal habitats like never before in history,” Aliota tells the AP. “I think spillover events from wild animals to humans are unfortunately going to increase in both frequency and scope.”