The team, whose members are from the University of Saskatchewan (USask), Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC), has found positive results in viral RNA swabs taken from four white-tailed deer harvested in 2021.
The National Center for Foreign Animal Diseases (NCFAD) confirmed the results, which represent 2% of the 227 white-tailed deer tested in Saskatchewan. Ten percent of the 62 white-tailed deer tested also had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, indicating previous exposure or active infection.
While white-tailed deer in Ohio and several Canadian provinces tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the team’s results represent the first detections in deer in Saskatchewan.
“For some reason deer are susceptible to infection, and not only that, when the virus gets into deer it spreads very quickly through the population,” said USask virologist Dr. Vikram Misra (PhD). at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. (WCVM).
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is transmissible between humans and animals. Once it spread in 2020, scientists suspected the virus could inevitably spread from humans to susceptible animal species.
“The problem is that if it enters a wildlife reservoir, the virus will obviously change in very, very unpredictable ways. And then there’s always the possibility of it going back into people from that reservoir,” Misra said.
He describes the project as a “perfect One Health issue”, crossing animal, human and environmental health and bringing together experts in wildlife health, virology, molecular microbiology, pathology, parasitology, zoonoses and public health. .
Dr. Emily Jenkins (DVM, PhD) is a WCVM researcher who conducts research studies on wildlife and public health in the North. Early in the pandemic, she received questions from Indigenous people who depend on wildlife for food and a living.
“We initiated this surveillance to reassure people about the wildlife they handle and consume,” Jenkins said, adding that SARS-CoV-2 is not foodborne and the risk of contracting the virus at from harvested wild animals is minimal.
Jenkins and Misra worked with Drs. Darryl Falzarano (PhD), Christy Morrissey (PhD) and Trent Bollinger (DVSc) from USask as well as Dr. Catherine Soos (DVM, PhD) and researcher Bruce Pauli from ECCC will receive grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Canada (NSERC) Alliance, ECCC and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
With the support secured, the WCVM lab in Jenkins and the wildlife health lab (managed by Soos) at ECCC’s Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Center in Saskatoon became sites for viral RNA testing. .
Misra and his lab have developed a test to identify SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in the blood of various animal species. Most tests for humans and animals only detect antibodies against the virus’ spike protein, but this new test also detects a few other proteins.
“It’s quite unique because it takes into account the changes the virus can undergo in a different species,” Misra said.
Soos, an ECCC wildlife health specialist and adjunct professor at WCVM, is leading Canada’s efforts to provide surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses in wildlife. This role put Soos in touch with partners who could leverage existing monitoring or research programs for the samples.
“A positive outcome…is that close coordination, communication and collaboration with all other relevant agencies and partners across the country has truly strengthened Canada’s network and capacity to address emerging One Health issues. said Soos.
Dr. Iga Stasiak (DVM) is a wildlife health specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment. She helped the team link up with the province’s chronic wasting disease surveillance program, which also includes the CWHC in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“Each year we have hunters from all over Saskatchewan submit deer heads for CWD testing – we thought this was a great opportunity to collect samples for coronavirus testing,” said Stasiak. “Since white-tailed deer are susceptible to the virus, we definitely wanted to research it here in Saskatchewan to see if that was the case as well.”
In 2021, technicians collected oral and nasal swabs and blood samples from more than 300 deer heads at a processing lab in Regina. The RCSF (Western/Northern Region) also collected samples from submitted deer and other cervids.
Saskatchewan SARS-CoV-2 surveillance team analyzes samples from ECCC, Parks Canada, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Maritimes and Northern Territories . The Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto is testing samples from Ontario and Quebec. NCFAD performs final confirmatory testing for all positive samples in Canada.
Canadian labs have tested more than 1,400 cervid samples with positive results detected in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, Soos reported. Canadian labs have also tested more than 1,600 samples (all negative) from other wildlife.
“We’re getting samples from every province and territory, a truly national surveillance effort…and actually helping to understand how this virus moves and mutates in wildlife,” Jenkins said.