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USF is studying how coronavirus spreads between humans and animals

Young Buck Deer at the Arthur R Marshalll wildlife refuge in Florida
Donnie Shackleford/doncon402
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The study will examine how the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads between humans and wildlife, such as white-tailed deer.

Scientists hope to improve guidance for how humans interact with wildlife to prevent future disease outbreaks.

Scientists with the University of South Florida want to learn more about how the coronavirus spreads between humans and wildlife.

They’re involved in a national study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"We know there are over 50 species of animals, all mammals, which can get infected with the virus that causes COVID-19," said Andrew Kramer, an integrative biologist at USF who is leading the study.

"Some of those animals seem to carry it without many negative effects, while others — mink, for example, and several large cats in zoo environments — have gotten quite sick from the virus, so it's really an animal-by-animal situation."

The five-year study will look at how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads between humans and animals, such as white-tailed deer. Recent USDA research shows the virus is likely to have spread widely among deer. It will also analyze which species are most likely to get sick.

Kramer plans to develop predictive models to help communities prevent future outbreaks.

The data could help identify which animals to monitor for potential new variants. It could also inform decisions about whether to vaccinate certain animals or do more to protect threatened species, explained Kramer.

“It’s not just about our health, right? "We have to worry about the health of our agricultural plants, the health our domestic animals and the health of wildlife in general,” he said.

Kramer is collaborating on the research with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, IBM Research and Washington State University.

“We hope that we can use the massive amounts of data and effort that's going into studying COVID-19," Kramer said. "We're hoping we can leverage that and get some understanding and signals that will help us when future diseases emerge.”

USF was awarded a $3 million grant to conduct the study. It’s supported by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service through a multiagency partnership with the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

The school is one of three members of the Association of American Universities selected to research the transmission of infectious diseases.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.