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Nebraska agencies to look for COVID in animals; ‘it’s pretty important work’ | Local News

Nebraska agencies to look for COVID in animals; 'it's pretty important work' | Local News
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During the course of the pandemic, it has become clear that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can infect not only humans but also animals.

Many scientists, in fact, think the virus, SARS-CoV-2, initially emerging from bats. Studies have found antibodies to the virus in white-tailed deer, and another study last fall found signs of widespread infections in tissue samples collected from Iowa deer. The virus also has been found in a variety of other animals, from big cats in zoos to raccoons and skunks in the wild.

For now, capacity is limited across the US to monitor animals for pathogens such as the coronavirus that can spread to humans, said Dr. Bryan Buss, who serves as Nebraska’s state public health veterinarian.

But that is poised to change. Recently, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services received a $100,000 grant that will allow the agency to work with a number of partners to develop a surveillance system for such diseases.

“There’s really a limited amount of information about what’s happening in our wildlife population,” Buss said, “so it’s pretty important and timely work.”

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In addition to looking for the virus in as many animals as possible, he said, another goal is to establish a sustainable system for reporting test results electronically. Plans call for building that system on an existing electronic reporting connection with the Nebraska Veterinary Diagnostic Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which tests animals for rabies.

The lab will conduct all of the coronavirus testing under the new initiative. The animals submitted for rabies testing also will be tested for the coronavirus. Other partners, including the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, will provide samples collected from animals for testing. Buss said the researchers also hope to work with humane societies to see if there are ways to test other domestic animals, such as feral cats.

Funding for the project was awarded by the Council for State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

Separately, the US Department of Agriculture is launching a series of projects aimed at creating an early warning system for zoonotic diseases, those that can be spread between animals and people. That agency has received funding through the American Rescue Plan Act — $300 million, according to the New York Times.

Buss said the projects can complement each other.

“The more we can learn collectively, looking at this in a number of ways … the better off we’ll be,” said Buss, a career epidemiology field officer with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assigned to Nebraska.

Creating a surveillance system in Nebraska is important, he said, because all the animals that live in the state create many opportunities for contact between people and animals. Farms and ranches account for 90% of the state’s land area, and 1.2 million acres are open for hunting, trapping and fishing. The state’s three zoos together draw 2.65 million visitors a year.

Right now, Buss said, the overall risk of transmission between humans and animals is low, as is the risk of humans getting the virus back from animals.

But researchers, he said, are concerned that new variants could emerge in animals and spread to humans and that animals could serve as reservoirs capable of spreading the virus to other species.

“It’s worth looking at, and we’re trying to build this for the future, not only for SARS-CoV-2,” he said, “but for other diseases that spread from animals.”

The largest potential source of animal samples for testing under the Nebraska project, he said, are deer killed by hunters.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has banked about 1,500 lymph nodes from deer, which were collected last fall with hunters’ permission at state check stations that were testing for chronic wasting disease.

Buss said the partners plan to reach out to hunters for permission to test the nodes for the coronavirus. The plan is not to test all of the banked nodes but a representative sample from across the state. This fall, the partners will ask hunters up front for permission to test for both illnesses.

Todd Nordeen, the commission’s big game disease and research program manager, said the agency also has sent some nasal swab samples from pronghorn antelope and elk that have been briefly captured for other agency studies. Those studies look primarily at the movement, distribution and resources used by wildlife in western Nebraska. Some blood serum samples also may be used.

Nordeen, who is based in Alliance, said the immediate aim is to see how widespread the virus has become across species. In the meantime, the project already has bolstered coordination among agencies that are tasked with dealing with such diseases.

“There’s still a lot unknown about (SARS-CoV-2) in animals,” he said. “This effort should help us gain more answers in that regard.”

Dr. Bruce Broderson, director of the veterinary diagnostic lab, said antelope and elk samples will be tested soon.

“It’ll be interesting to see what species are affected,” he said.

Dr. Sarah Woodhouse, the Omaha zoo’s director of animal health, said zoo staff have chosen to sample animals they think are at greater risk of getting COVID-19 based on animal infections in zoos around the world and on which animals can get closest to guests.

The zoo has been monitoring its snow leopards — it’s home to a pair, a male and a female — with weekly fecal collections. Both have been negative. Now they will add tigers. Two of the zoo’s tigers previously tested positive for COVID-19 but since have been clear. Also on the list are two ambassador cheetahs that go to events. While they’re not allowed to get within 10 feet of people, and people at the events are asked to mask around them, the animals are in closer contact with humans and keepers.

Also to be monitored are the African wild cat and coatimundi in the zoo’s Desert Dome, two species of otters in the Lied Jungle as well as orangutans, siamangs and squirrel monkeys in the jungle’s Adventure Trail area. A coatimundi tested positive at another zoo, and otters fall in the same family as mink, which have been subject to large outbreaks on farms.

Woodhouse said the state health department also is helping collect swabs of guano from the jungle’s Egyptian fruit bats. While zoo staff have seen no evidence of COVID in the bats, the zoo has been closing the jungle early since the pandemic began to minimize contact between the bats and visitors. The bats are most active in early evening.

“It’ll be comforting to know we’re doing some surveillance and making sure our animals aren’t being exposed to COVID, both for the sake of our animals and keepers and for the sake of our guests,” she said.

The zoo, Woodhouse said, also is planning to participate in an evolving USDA-Animal Plant Health Inspection Service study. That project will involve testing blood samples collected from zoo animals before and after the pandemic began for antibodies to COVID, which would provide evidence of exposure to the virus.

Nebraska continues to see lower COVID case counts and hospitalizations

If the researchers find the virus in the samples they’re testing, Buss said, they will attempt to sequence its genome at either the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory or the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratory.

Scientists recently identified a new, highly mutated version of the virus in white-tailed deer in Ontario. A similar viral sequence was found in a person in the area who had close contact with deer. No evidence has been found, however, that the deer variant is spreading among or poses any added risk to people, the New York Times reported.

Buss said it’s not well understood how the strain evolved. Among the things the Nebraska researchers want to know is whether a reservoir of the virus exists in some other species or there is more widespread circulation among deer than is currently known.

If the researchers find the virus in the animals they’re testing, Buss said, they plan to go back and look for it in other species in the area, such as rodents and rabbits.

“We may wind up with very few positives,” he said. “But if we do find it, we’re going to be pretty aggressive in doing some investigation in the wild.”


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