US scientists step up efforts to research Covid in bears, deer and other animals | Coronavirus

To administer this Covid test, Todd Kautz had to lie on his belly in the snow and worm his upper body into the narrow den of a hibernating black bear. Training a light on the bear’s snout, Kautz carefully slipped a long cotton swab into his nostrils.

For postdoctoral researcher Kautz and a team of other wildlife experts, tracking the coronavirus means freezing temperatures, icy roads, trudging through deep snow and getting uncomfortably close to potentially dangerous wildlife.

They are testing bears, moose, deer and wolves on a Native American reservation in the remote north woods of Minnesota about five miles from Canada. Like researchers around the world, they are trying to figure out how, how much and where wildlife is spreading the virus.

Scientists are concerned that the virus could evolve within animal populations – possibly spawning dangerous viral mutants that could jump back to people, spread among us and reignite what, for now, seems to some like a waning crisis.

The pandemic has served as a stark and tragic example of how closely animal health and human health are linked.

While the origins of the virus have not been proven, many scientists say it probably jumped from bats to humans, either directly or through another species that was being sold live in Wuhan.

And now the virus has been confirmed in wildlife in at least 24 US states, including Minnesota.

Recently, an early Canadian study showed someone in nearby Ontario probably contracted a highly mutated strain from a deer.

“If the virus can establish itself in a wild animal reservoir, it will always be out there with the threat to spill back into the human population,” said University of Minnesota researcher Matthew Aliota, who is working with the Grand Portage Reservation team.

EJ Isaac, a fish and wildlife biologist for the reservation, which is home to the Grand Portage Ojibwe, said he expects the stakes to get even higher with the start of spring, as bears wake from hibernation and deer and wolves roam to different regions.

“If we consider that there are many species and they’re all intermingling to some extent, their patterns and their movements can exponentially increase the amount of transmission that could occur,” he said.

Their research is meant to ward off such unwelcome surprises. But it carries its own set of risks.

Seth Moore, who directs the reservation biology and environment department, recently almost got bitten by a wolf.

The group sometimes teams with a crew from the Texas-based company Heliwild to capture animals from the air. One chilly late-winter afternoon, the men climbed into a small helicopter with no side doors that lifted above the treetops.

Flying low, they quickly spotted a deer in a forest clearing. They targeted the animal from the air with a net gun and dropped Moore off to swab the deer.

The men capture moose in much the same way, using tranquilizer darts instead of nets. They trap wolves and deer either from the air or on the ground, and trap bears on the ground.

They knew of the young male bear they recently tested because they had already been tracking him. To get to the den, they had to take snowmobiles to the bottom of a hill then hike a narrow, winding path in snow shoes.

When Kautz crawled part-way into the den, a colleague held his feet to pull him out quickly if necessary. The team also gave the animal a drug to keep him sleeping and another later to counteract the effects of the first.

To minimize the risk of exposing animals to Covid, the men are fully vaccinated and boosted and get tested frequently.

The day after testing the bear, Isaac packed their samples to send to Aliota’s lab in Saint Paul. The veterinary and biomedical researcher hopes to learn not just which animals are getting infected but also whether certain animals are acting as “bridge species” to bring it to others.

Testing may be expanded to red foxes and raccoons. It’s also possible the virus has not reached this remote location – yet.

Since it’s already circulating in the wilderness of Minnesota and nearby states, Aliota said it’s only a matter of time.

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