USGS research on zoonotic coronaviruses supports CDC-led One Health approach

USGS research on zoonotic coronaviruses supports CDC-led One Health approach

November 5, 2021

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) wildlife disease research capabilities have been utilized to conduct surveillance and research to support a collaborative initiative designed to respond to zoonotic diseases, including COVID-19 and other emerging coronaviruses.

Many emerging human infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, are zoonotic - meaning they can be shared between animals and humans. Of emerging human infectious diseases that are zoonotic, 70% originate in wildlife. The effects of emerging wildlife diseases are global and profound, often resulting in economic and agricultural impacts, declines in wildlife populations, and ecological disturbance.

One Health, coordinated by the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a collaborative approach – working at the local, regional, national, and global levels – with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.

Following the 2016 Joint External Evaluation the CDC, US Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior (DOI) planned and implemented the first USA One Health Zoonotic Disease Prioritization Workshop. Eight diseases were selected as priority at the workshop and include: Zoonotic influenza; Salmonellosis; West Nile virus; Plague; emerging coronaviruses; Rabies; Brucellosis; and Lyme disease.

Of the eight prioritized zoonoses, USGS conducts work on seven, including emerging coronaviruses. These include:

COVID-19 Effects on Fisheries:

The One Health approach has been especially useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing researchers to explore the effects of global public health measures on fish, wildlife, and ecosystems. For example, a study co-authored by the USGS found that uneven COVID-19 responses have had correspondingly uneven effects on inland fisheries around the globe. Fish populations in some regions thrived as commercial fisheries shut down, while other fisheries became over-burdened as seafood became an increasingly important food source in strained markets. In another study, USGS found that COVID-19 also affected recreational anglers in the United States, with many reporting fishing as an important social outlet and source of stress relief during tough pandemic times. These studies emphasize the complex relationship between human health, natural resources, and human’s relationship with nature.

Development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to support black-footed ferret conservation:

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is known to infect and cause severe disease, such as respiratory distress and death, in mustelids, including farm-raised mink and domestic ferrets. This raised concern that the virus may also pose a threat to endangered black-footed ferrets managed in captivity for breeding and recovery purposes. Although to date no evidence of exposure in captive or wild black-footed ferrets has been observed, detection of SARS-CoV-2 in zoo animals and documented cases of transmission from farm workers to farm-raised mink demonstrates the risk of human to animal viral transmission in captive settings. In addition to enhanced use of personal protective equipment by caretakers and other procedures to reduce risk of transmission to black-footed ferrets, a small study was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the USGS to assess whether immunization of black-footed ferrets using commercially available viral proteins could elicit a protective immune response against the virus. Vaccinated animals had higher antibody levels, including virus neutralizing antibodies, compared to unvaccinated animals. It is still unknown whether vaccination is protective against the disease or reduces its effects; nevertheless, due to the importance of this captive population, approximately 2/3 of the black-footed ferrets at USFWS National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center were vaccinated as a precautionary measure.

Examining the susceptibility of North American bats to SARS-CoV-2:

The USGS led assessments on the likelihood for scientists and wildlife managers to transmit SARS-CoV-2, which is the type of coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in humans, to North American bats during fieldwork. The studies found that if no protective measures are taken, less than two in 1,000 bats are likely to become infected during summer fieldwork and one in 1,000 are likely to become infected during winter fieldwork. That risk is reduced with the proper use of personal protective equipment or if individuals test negative for COVID-19 prior to conducting research. To more directly assess the potential for bats to become infected by SARS-CoV-2, the USGS conducted an infection trial in big brown bats and found that big brown bats are resistant to infection. To determine the potential susceptibility of other North American bat species, researchers began an experimental challenge trial examining the susceptibility of Mexican free-tailed bats to SARS-CoV-2. This species was selected because it resides in large colonies, often in urban settings, thereby increasing potential risk of exposure to the virus from infected humans. The reservoir potential of these bats for the virus is currently unknown and will be assessed in this study.

Read more, including details of USGS work on avian influenza viruses, Lyme disease, plague, and environmental impacts on fish, wildlife and human health: