(Grand Portage, Minn.) — To administer this COVID test, Todd Kautz had to lay on his belly in the snow and worm his upper body into the narrow den of a hibernating black bear. Training a light on its snout, Kautz carefully slipped a long cotton swab into the bear’s nostrils five times.
Kautz is a postdoctoral research fellow and works with a group of other wildlife experts to track the coronavirus. It involves freezing temperatures, deep snow, treacherous roads and being uncomfortably near potentially deadly wildlife.
They’re testing bears, moose, deer and wolves on a Native American reservation in the remote north woods about 5 miles from Canada. Researchers around the globe are also trying to find out the spread of the virus in wildlife.
Scientists are concerned that the virus could evolve within animal populations—potentially spawning dangerous viral mutants that could jump back to people, spread among us and reignite what for now seems to some people like a waning crisis.
Coronavirus is a devastating example of how animal and human health can be linked. Scientists aren’t able to prove the source of the virus, but many believe that it was transmitted from bats or another species through a sale in Wuhan (China).
The virus was confirmed to be present in wild animals in at least 24 U.S. States, including Minnesota. An early Canadian study found that someone from Ontario had likely been exposed to a mutation in the virus by 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.
E.J. Isaac, a fish and wildlife biologist for the reservation that’s 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.
In the Wild
This is why they do their research to prevent unwelcome surprises. However, it comes with its own risks.
Seth Moore (director of the Reservation Biology and Environment department) was nearly bitten by an wolf recently.
They sometimes work together with Heliwild, a Texas-based crew to photograph animals from the sky. They climbed in a small helicopter without side doors, which lifted the canopy above their heads. They flew low and quickly saw a deer hidden in a clearing. Moore was then dropped by them as they targeted him from the air using a net gun.
Wind whipped at his face as he worked in deep snow to quickly swab the deer’s nose for COVID, put on a tracking collar and collect blood and other biological samples for different research.
Men capture moose much in the same manner, but they use tranquilizer darts rather than nets. They capture wolves, deer and bears from either the air or the ground and also trap bears.
Because they were already tracking the bear, they knew about this young male bear. They had to use snowmobiles up a steep hill to reach the den and then they had to walk in their snowshoes along a narrow path.
Kautz was crawling partway in the den when a colleague helped him to his feet, and he could be pulled out of the den quickly by another member. They also administered a drug that kept Kautz asleep and another to combat the side effects.
Men are fully vaccinated, boosted, and tested regularly to minimize exposure of the animals to COVID.
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. Later, testing may be extended to red foxes or racoons.
It’s also possible the virus hasn’t 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.
Look for mutants
The virus has been spread by close contact between animals and humans.
To infect any living thing, the virus must get into its cells, which isn’t always easy. Virology expert David O’Connor likens the process to opening a “lock” with the virus’ spike protein “key.”
“Different species have different-looking locks, and some of those locks are not going to be pickable by the key,” the University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist said.
But other locks are similar enough for the virus to enter an animal’s cells and make copies of itself. The virus can alter itself randomly and retain a human key. Scientists believe that this allows the animal to jump back to us by close contact with living animals.
Even though spillback is uncommon, one individual can bring a virus mutation into the world of people.
Some believe the highly mutated variant of omicron was created by an animal and not an immune-compromised individual. Virologist Marc Johnson of the University of Missouri is one of them, and now sees animals as “a potential source of pi,” the Greek letter that may be used to designate the next dangerous coronavirus variant.
Johnson and colleagues discovered unusual coronavirus lineages within New York City sewers with rare mutations not seen anywhere else. Johnson suspects they came from rodents or animals.
Researchers are particularly concerned about the possibility that new or future versions could develop and expand within a species reservoir.
The white-tailed deer may be a possibility. Researchers found coronavirus among a third deer in Iowa from September 2020 to January 2021. Other tests revealed COVID-19 antibodies among a third deer from Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, New York, New York. Most infected deer do not show symptoms. Tests in other wild animals have been very limited.
“It’s possible that the virus is already perhaps circulating in multiple animals,” said virology expert Suresh Kuchipudi of Pennsylvania State University, an author of the Iowa deer study. If unmonitored, the virus could leave people “completely blindsided,” he said.
Is it possible to stop this?
Ultimately, experts say the only way to stop viruses from jumping back and forth between animals and humans—extending 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 we have never before in history,” Aliota said. “Spillover events from wild animals into humans are, unfortunately I think, going to increase in both frequency and scope.”
To combat that threat, three international organizations—the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the World Health Organization—are urging countries to make COVID surveillance in animals a priority.
In Grand Portage, Aliota’s collaborators continue to do their part by testing as many animals as they can catch.
Isaac placed his hand under the netting of a trap for deer, the sparkling waters of Lake Superior shining through evergreens. Isaac was able to swab the nostrils of the animal by a colleague who was straddling it.
Isaac was able to grab what the young bucks needed by merely putting its head up.
“Nicely done,” his colleague said as Isaac put the sample into a vial.
After they had finished their work, the men gently removed the trap and let go of the deer. Without looking back, it ran through the dense forest and disappeared into the dark shadows.
Read More From Time