GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. (AP) — To administer this COVID test, Todd Kautz had to lie facedown in the snow and stick his upper body into the cramped den of a hibernating black bear. Focusing a light on his snout, Kautz carefully slid a long cotton swab into the bear’s nostrils five times.
For postdoctoral researcher Kautz and a team of other wildlife experts, tracking the coronavirus means sub-zero temperatures, icy roads, slogging through deep snow and getting uncomfortably close to potentially dangerous wildlife.
They are testing bear, elk, deer and wolves on a Native American reservation in the remote North Woods, about 5 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 worry that the virus could evolve within animal populations, potentially spawning dangerous viral mutants that could return to people, spread among us and reignite what, for now, looks like a waning crisis to some people.
The coronavirus 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 likely jumped from bats to humans, either directly or through another species that was being sold live in Wuhan, China.
And now the virus has been confirmed in wildlife in at least 24 US states, including Minnesota. Recently, a early canadian study showed that someone in nearby Ontario likely 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 of spreading back to the human population,” said University of Minnesota researcher Matthew Aliota, who is working with the Reservoir team. Grand Portage.
EJ Isaac, a fish and wildlife biologist for the reservation that is home to the Grand Portage Ojibwe, said he expects the stakes to rise even higher with the start of spring, as bears wake up from hibernation and deer and wolves They roam different regions.
“If we consider that there are many species and they all intermingle to some degree, their patterns and their movements can exponentially increase the amount of transmission that could occur,” he said.
INTO THE WILD
Your research is intended to prevent such unpleasant surprises. But it comes with its own set of risks.
Seth Moore, who heads the reserve’s biology and environment department, was recently nearly bitten by a wolf.
And sometimes they team up with a team from the Texas-based company Heliwild to capture animals from the air. One cold late-winter afternoon, the men climbed into a small helicopter with no side doors soaring above the treetops. Flying low, they quickly spotted a deer in a clearing in the woods. They aimed a net gun at the animal from the air and left Moore.
The wind whipped at his face as he worked in deep snow to quickly swab deer noses for COVID, put on a tracking collar, and collect blood and other biological samples for various investigations.
The men catch moose the same way, using tranquilizer darts instead of nets. They catch wolves and deer either from the air or on the ground, and they catch bears on the ground.
They knew about the young male bear they tested recently because they had already been tracking him. To get to the lair, they had to take snowmobiles to the bottom of a hill and then walk down a narrow, winding path on snowshoes.
As Kautz crawled halfway into the studio, a colleague grabbed his feet to get him out quickly if necessary. The team also gave the animal a drug to keep it sleeping and another one later to counteract the effects of the first one.
To minimize the risk of exposing the animals to COVID, the men are fully vaccinated and boosted and are tested frequently.
The day after testing the bear, Isaac packed his samples to send to Aliota’s lab in Saint Paul. The veterinary and biomedical researcher hopes to learn not only which animals are becoming infected, but also whether certain animals are acting as “bridge species” to carry it to others. Subsequently, the tests can be extended to red foxes and raccoons.
It’s also possible that the virus hasn’t reached this remote location yet. Since it’s already making the rounds in the Minnesota desert and nearby states, Aliota said it’s only a matter of time.
LOOKING FOR MUTANTS
Close contact between humans and animals has allowed the virus to overcome built-in barriers to spread between species.
To infect any living being, the virus must enter its cells, which is not always easy. Virology expert David O’Connor likens the process to opening a “padlock” with the “key” on the spike protein of the virus.
“Different species have different-looking locks, and some of those locks won’t open with the key,” said the University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist.
But other locks are similar enough for the virus to enter an animal’s cells and make copies of itself. While doing so, you can randomly mutate and still have a key that fits the human lock. That allows it to return to humans through close contact with living animals, scientists believe.
Although spillage is rare, it only takes one person to bring a mutated virus into the human realm.
Some think that the highly mutated omicron variant arose from an animal rather than an immunocompromised human, as many believe. Virologist Marc Johnson at the University of Missouri is one of them, now seeing animals as “a potential source of pi,” the Greek letter that can be used to designate the next dangerous variant of the coronavirus.
Johnson and his colleagues found strange coronavirus lineages in New York City sewage with mutations rarely seen elsewhere, which he believes come from animals, perhaps rodents.
What worries scientists most is that current or future variants could become established and multiply widely within a reservoir species.
One possibility: white-tailed deer. scientists found the coronavirus in a third of deer sampled in Iowa between September 2020 and January 2021. Others found COVID-19 antibodies in a third of deer tested in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. Infected deer usually have no symptoms. Evidence in many other wild species has been limited or non-existent.
“The virus may already be circulating in a number of animals,” said virology expert Suresh Kuchipudi of Pennsylvania State University, an author of the Iowa deer study. If left unchecked, the virus could leave people “completely surprised,” he said.
CAN YOU STOP?
Ultimately, experts say the only way to prevent viruses from jumping between animals and humans, spreading this pandemic or sparking a new one, is to tackle big problems like habitat destruction and illegal wildlife sales.
“We are encroaching on animal habitats like never before in history,” Aliota said. “I think, unfortunately, indirect events from wild animals to humans are going to increase in both frequency and scope.”
To combat that threat, three international organizations — the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Organization for Animal Health and the World Health Organization — are urging countries to do COVID surveillance in animals a priority.
At Grand Portage, Aliota’s associates continue to do their part by testing as many animals as they can catch.
With frozen Lake Superior shimmering through the evergreens, Isaac slipped his hand under the netting of a deer trap. A colleague sitting astride the animal lifted its head from the snowy ground so that Isaac could clear its nostrils.
The young stallion jerked his head forward briefly, but held still long enough for Isaac to get what he needed.
“Well done,” his colleague said as Isaac put the sample into a vial.
When they were done, they gently lifted the trap to let the deer go. She bounded into the vast forest without looking back, disappearing into the snowy shadows.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.