USDA awards $56M to support research on SARS-CoV-2 in animals

SARS-CoV-2 remains a threat to both humans and animals, which is why researchers continue to study its spread and how it works. Doing so could also be instructive for how to handle other emerging diseases.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has awarded 36 grants totaling more than $56 million to research projects taking a One Health approach to studying SARS-CoV-2 in animal populations, according to a September 12 announcement.

Close up image of brown rat
One study that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) funded involved researchers capturing and sampling rats in and around the New York City sewage system for the virus that causes COVID-19.

APHIS and its partners are conducting projects that contribute toward the agency’s strategic framework for surveillance of animals for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This includes projects to understand how SARS-CoV-2 virus behaves in different animals, how it moves between animals and people, and what can be done to interrupt the chain of disease transmission. Long term, these projects will help APHIS build a national capacity to prevent or limit the next zoonotic disease outbreak, according to the announcement.

Some preliminary results have already emerged from funded projects.

Earlier this year, APHIS released national research from its first year of studies and sampling of white-tailed deer for active infection of SARS-CoV-2. These studies show that SARS-CoV-2 is likely to have spread widely within the U.S. white-tailed deer population. Additionally, the research shows that SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted from humans to deer, mutated, and was potentially transmitted back to humans. This research is helping us understand if cervids, such as white-tailed deer, are acting as a host or reservoir species.

In another study, APHIS wildlife disease specialists collaborated with University of Missouri researchers to capture and sample rats in fall 2021 in and around the New York City sewage system. Their findings show that 13 of 79 wild rats (16.5%) tested positive for exposure to SARS-CoV-2. The authors note that this data suggests “rats may have been exposed to the virus through unknown fomites, e.g. those contaminated with human food wastes”, although no evidence has shown that SARS-CoV-2 viruses in sewage water is infectious. The results suggest the need for further monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 in those populations.

Projects include eight by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and one by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) program. Twenty-seven other projects range from monitoring cervid health on Sauk-Suiattle Indian tribal lands in Washington state to SARS-CoV-2 surveillance in imported domestic animals entering Los Angeles International Airport to studying the mechanism underlying susceptibility or resistance of animal species to SARS-CoV-2.

“APHIS has long relied on collaboration with our state, tribal, federal, and private partners to help protect our nation’s agricultural and natural resources,” APHIS Acting Administrator Dr. Michael Watson said in the statement. “We are excited about the opportunity these new partnerships give us to build critical One Health coordination and capacity while furthering the science on SARS-CoV-2. This important work will strengthen our foundation to protect humans and animals for years to come.”

The One Health concept recognizes that the health of people, animals, and the environment are linked. APHIS is currently conducting multiple projects related to One Health, including those aimed at understanding how the SARS-CoV-2 virus behaves in different animals, how it moves between animals and people, and how to interrupt the chain of transmission.

Every issue of JAVMA and AJVR includes Currents in One Health, a feature in which key opinion leaders weigh in on timely topics affecting animal, human, and environmental health.

A version of this story appears in the December 2023 print issue of JAVMA.

Visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website for a complete list of the One Health projects looking at SARS-CoV-2.