Minnesota Researchers Administering COVID Tests to Deer, Moose, Bears, and Wolves

by TK Sanders
(Photo by Wild Horizons/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Researchers in Minnesota are administering COVID tests to various wildlife like bears, moose, and deer. They want to understand the prevalence of the virus in wildlife communities; and what dangers it poses to those communities if any.

Scientists have already found traces of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, in Iowa’s whitetail deer, and in Utah’s mule deer. They also found the virus in domestic cats and dogs; zoo animals like gorillas and big cat; and some mass-farmed animals like mink. According to Outdoor Life, 25 different states have reported cases of the virus in wildlife; so understanding the virus’ reach, tracking potential viral mutations, and avoiding potential transmissions of new strains are top priorities for many biologists.

“If the virus can establish itself in a wild animal reservoir, it will always be out there. It will always threaten to spill back into the human population,” University of Minnesota researcher Matthew Aliota said. He then explained that researchers want to track the virus through wild animal populations whenever possible.

Once an animal is located for a test, the team must capture it for observation. They use tranquilizer darts for moose, aerial nets, and ground traps for wolves and deer; and, for some bears, they’ll walk into their dens while they hibernate. Field researchers send the samples to Aliota’s lab in Saint Paul. There, scientists try to isolate potential “bridge species” that could pass the virus on to others.

“If we consider that there are many species and they’re all intermingling to some extent, then their patterns and movements can exponentially increase the amount of transmission that could occur,” said E.J. Isaac, a fish and wildlife biologist on the reservation. All researchers receive frequent tests of their own to try to limit the amount of human-to-animal transmission.

Researchers want to administer COVID tests to deer and other animals to learn more about inter-species transmission

Human and animal contact did not generate many headlines during the pandemic. The public largely assumed that animals either did not develop COVID; or that animals could not pass it on to humans. Researchers now know that the virus can mutate in animal cells. The mutated cells “have a key that fits in the human lock” that “allows it to leap back to humans through close contact with live animals,” the Associated Press reported.

As a result, outdoor experts are encouraging hunters to exercise caution around animals and continue to practice clean field-dressing techniques.

“We’ve known for a long time that deer and other wildlife, and even our pets can get and contract and carry SARS-CoV-2. The CDC currently states that the risk of pets spreading it to people is low,” Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Association, said. “Still, the World Health Organization has recently stated that the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 to wildlife could result in the establishment of animal reservoirs, which is also important.”