GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. (AP) — To administer this COVID test, Todd Kautz had to lie face down in the snow and squeeze his upper body into the tight den of a hibernating black bear.
GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. (AP) — To administer this COVID test, Todd Kautz had to lie face down in the snow and squeeze his upper body into the tight den of a hibernating black bear. Dragging a light to his muzzle, 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 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 northern woods about 5 miles from Canada. Like researchers around the world, they are trying to figure out how, how much and where wildlife spreads the virus.
Scientists fear the virus could evolve within animal populations – potentially spawning dangerous viral mutants that could jump back to humans, spread among us and rekindle what for now seems to some people like a waning crisis.
The coronavirus pandemic has served as a stark and tragic example of the close relationship between animal health and human health. Although 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 sold live in Wuhan, China.
And now the virus has been confirmed in wildlife from at least 24 US states, including Minnesota. Recently, a first Canadian study showed that a person from neighboring Ontario had probably contracted a highly mutated strain from a deer.
“If the virus can establish itself in a wildlife reservoir, it will still be there with the threat of spreading into the human population,” said Matthew Aliota, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, who works with the Grand Portage Reserve team.
EJ Isaac, fish and wildlife biologist for the reserve that is home to Grand Portage Ojibwe, said he expects the stakes to rise further with the onset of spring as bears wake up from the hibernation and that deer and wolves roam in different areas.
“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,” he said.
Their research aims to ward off these unpleasant surprises. But it comes with its own set of risks.
Seth Moore, who heads the biology and environment department at the reserve, was nearly bitten by a wolf recently.
And they sometimes team up with a team from Texas-based Heliwild to capture animals from the air. On a cold late winter afternoon, the men climbed into a small helicopter with no side doors that soared above the treetops. Flying low, they quickly spotted a deer in a clearing. They targeted the animal from the air with a net gun and put Moore down.
The wind whipped his face as he worked in the deep snow to quickly wipe the deer’s nose for COVID, put on a tracking collar and collect blood and other biological samples for different research.
Men capture moose the same way, using tranquilizer darts instead of nets. They trap wolves and deer from the air or on the ground, and trap bears on the ground.
They knew the young male bear they recently tested because they had tracked him before. To get to the den, they had to take snowmobiles down a hill and then hike a narrow, winding trail on snowshoes.
When Kautz crawled halfway into the den, a colleague held his feet to quickly pull him out if necessary. The team also gave the animal a drug to keep it asleep and another later to counter the effects of the first.
To minimize the risk of exposing animals to COVID, humans are fully vaccinated and boosted and tested frequently.
The day after the bear test, Isaac packed up their samples to send to Aliota’s lab in Saint Paul. The veterinary and biomedical researcher hopes to find out not only which animals are infected, but also whether certain animals act as “gateway species” to bring it to others. The tests could later be extended to red foxes and raccoons.
It is also possible that the virus has not yet reached that remote location. Since it’s already circulating in the wilderness of Minnesota and neighboring states, Aliota said it’s only a matter of time.
IN SEARCH OF MUTANTS
Close contact between humans and animals allowed the virus to overcome built-in barriers to spread between species.
To infect a living being, the virus must enter its cells, which is not always easy. Virology expert David O’Connor likens the process to opening a ‘lock’ with the ‘key’ to the virus’ spike protein.
“Different species have different-looking locks, and some of those locks won’t be pickable by 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. As he does, he can randomly mutate and still have a key that fits in the human lock. This allows it to revert to humans through close contact with living animals, scientists believe.
Although fallout is rare, it only takes one person to bring a mutated virus to the human realm.
Some believe that the highly mutated omicron variant originated from an animal rather than an immunocompromised human, as many believe. University of Missouri virologist Marc Johnson is one of them and now sees animals as “a potential source of pi,” the Greek letter that can be used to denote the next dangerous variant of the coronavirus.
Johnson and his colleagues have found strange lineages of coronaviruses in New York City sewage with mutations rarely seen elsewhere, which he believes came from animals, possibly rodents.
What worries scientists the most is that current or future variants could become established and multiply widely within a reservoir species.
One possibility: white-tailed deer. Scientists have found the coronavirus in a third of deer sampled in Iowa between September 2020 and January 2021. Others have found COVID-19 antibodies in a third of deer tested in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Infected deer usually show no symptoms. Testing on many other wildlife species has been limited or absent.
“It is possible that the virus is already circulating in several animals,” said virology expert Suresh Kuchipudi of Pennsylvania State University, author of the Iowa deer study. If left unchecked, the virus could leave people “completely caught off guard”, he said.
CAN IT BE ARRESTED?
Ultimately, experts say the only way to stop viruses from jumping back and forth between animals and humans — prolonging this pandemic or sparking a new one — is to tackle big problems like the habitat destruction and illegal wildlife sales.
“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 scope.”
To combat this 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 conduct surveillance of COVID in animals a priority.
At Grand Portage, Aliota employees continue to do their part by testing as many animals as they can catch.
As icy Lake Superior shimmered through the evergreens, Isaac slipped his hand under the netting of a deer trap. A colleague riding the animal lifted its head off the snowy ground so Isaac could dab its nostrils.
The young male tilted his head forward briefly, but remained still long enough for Isaac to get what he needed.
“Well done,” said his colleague as Isaac put the sample in a vial.
When they were done, they gently lifted the trap to let the deer go. He leapt into the vast forest without looking back, disappearing into the snowy shadows.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Laura Ungar, The Associated Press