APHIS to study SARS-CoV-2 in zoos, aquariums

Animal health officials hope to get a better sense this year which zoo and aquarium species are vulnerable to infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service hope to recruit 30-50 zoos and aquariums to provide serum from mammals known to be susceptible to infections, similar species that are untested, species with the ACE2 cell surface receptor that the virus uses to enter host cells, and other species of high importance, such as endangered animals or those that often interact with humans. Agency officials also want to assess biosecurity practices at facilities willing to participate in such evaluations, and APHIS Wildlife Services officials also plan to conduct sampling and tracking of wild animals—such as rodents, skunks, and foxes—that live near zoos and aquariums to assess the risk presented by those animals.

Children helping a trainer interact with dolphins at a marine park
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are studying susceptibility to the SARS-CoV-2 virus of animals at zoos and aquariums, including species of high importance, such as endangered animals or those that often interact with humans.

APHIS spokesperson Lyndsay Cole said in a message that the project, the Zoo and Aquarium Serology Study, is intended to identify species previously exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and identify practices that facilities can use to prevent exposure of animals to the virus, whether through physical biosecurity or personnel practices. The project will also help build infrastructure to test samples from a broad range of species and build one-health partnerships, she said.

In a Feb. 2 video presentation, APHIS officials indicated they were seeking voluntary participation from zoo and aquarium facilities, which would be selected for participation this spring.

Agency officials plan to request serum samples and assess biosecurity measures through fall 2022, according to the presenters. Officials also plan to trap nearby wildlife and use camera traps to track movement of wildlife on and off zoo grounds. Officials hope to summarize their findings by early 2023.

Video from the presentation is available on YouTube, and the agency has asked that interested zoo and aquarium officials send a message to jeremy [dot] w [dot] ellisatusda [dot] gov or susan [dot] a [dot] shrineratusda [dot] gov.

A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.