At the Grand Portage Reservation in northern Minnesota, researchers are administering COVID tests to bears, moose, deer and wolves in an effort to understand the prevalence of the virus in local wildlife. SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans – has already been widely documented in white-tailed deer in Iowa, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has confirmed its first case. of COVID in a mule deer this week. The virus has been found in domestic cats and dogs, zoo animals like gorillas and snow leopards, and farmed mink. With 25 states reporting cases of SARS in wildlife, understanding the spread of the virus, tracking potential viral mutations, and avoiding potential transmissions of new strains seem like logical next steps.
“If the virus can establish itself in a wildlife reservoir, it will still be there with the threat of spreading into the human population,” University of Minnesota researcher Matthew Aliota told The Associated Press. . He explained that through their study, researchers and wildlife experts hope to learn how the virus acts and evolves within wildlife populations.
Once an animal is located for testing, the team uses a variety of tactics to capture it: tranquilizer darts for moose, overhead nets and ground traps for wolves and deer and, for some bears , a close encounter in their den while they hibernate. . Once the samples are collected, they are sent to Aliota’s lab in Saint Paul where he hopes to identify which animals might act as “gateway species” and transmit the disease to others. All members of the collection team are fully vaccinated and boosted, and they are tested frequently to limit any transmission of the virus to the wildlife they collect.
“If we consider that there are many species and they all mix to some degree, their patterns and movements can exponentially increase the amount of transmission that could occur,” said EJ Isaac, biologist of fish and wildlife in the reserve.
Viruses like SARS mutate to enter an animal’s cells and replicate before mutating again – enough to ‘have a key that fits into the human lock’ that ‘allows it to revert back to humans through close contact with live animals,” according to the PA.
Read more : Discovery in Canada of the first possible case of deer transmitting COVID-19 to a human
So what does this mean for the upcoming spring and fall hunting seasons? For starters, hunters should continue to exercise caution and practice proper terrain dressing and meat handling techniques.
“We have long known that deer and other wildlife, and even our pets, can contract and carry SARS-CoV-2. The CDC currently states that the risk of pets transmitting it to people is low,” wrote Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Association, in an email to Outdoor living. “Yet the World Health Organization recently said that the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into wildlife could lead to the creation of animal reservoirs, which is also important.”
With this possibility in mind, testing programs like the one at Grand Portage will likely be expanded to other locations to include other wildlife species. International organizations like the World Organization for Animal Health are urging countries around the world to prioritize surveillance for COVID in animals, as experts say the threat posed by the virus doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.
“We are encroaching on animal habitats like never before in history,” Aliota said. “Wild animal spillover events onto humans will, unfortunately, I expect to increase in both frequency and magnitude.”