USDA developing new tools to identify SARS-CoV-2 in wild, domestic animals

The COVID-19 pandemic is now approaching its third anniversary in the U.S. While some experts anticipate the causative virus could reach endemic status, SARS-CoV-2 continues to mutate and infect humans and animals alike.

Regarding the latter, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are developing new tests and tools to identify and track the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants in wild and domestic animals.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is currently implementing a $300 million provision in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021—the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package—to monitor susceptible animals for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Through this initiative, APHIS is partnering with the USDA Agricultural Research Service on five research projects to improve understanding of the virus and to help the USDA accomplish its goal of building an early warning system to potentially prevent or limit the next zoonotic disease outbreak or global pandemic.

Alert white-tailed deer in a Wisconsin snow-covered field
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is studying how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus persists in deer, among other projects to improve understanding of the virus.

“This investment ensures we are taking the steps necessary to safeguard our nation’s animal health—and further, public health,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a Dec. 21, 2022, announcement. “Scientific research undergirds USDA's programs and policies. The new tools and data generated from this research will provide the insights necessary to accelerate our understanding of the COVID virus and help us build a more resilient national capacity to address future disease threats.”

Two of the projects call for developing easy-to-use field tests to quickly identify SARS-CoV-2 infection in wildlife and domestic animals. In two other projects, field and laboratory studies will determine how long the virus persists in deer and whether deer or elk can serve as an intermediate animal host in which the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive in the wild and potentially mutate into new variants. The fifth project is developing a cell line as a model that will let researchers better predict which animal species might act as hosts or reservoirs for the virus.

Through these and other efforts, the USDA is working to implement a risk-based, comprehensive, integrated disease monitoring and surveillance system domestically and to enhance collaborations with national, regional, and global One Health partners to build additional capacity for zoonotic disease surveillance and prevention.