Wolverines, lynx and moose: Fish and Game screens wildlife for COVID

A moose stands in a snowy train track with a yellow train engine behind it
A moose refuses to move from a train track near Caswell, Alaska. Heavy snow in recent weeks in the area has made travel difficult for moose, putting recreators on high alert. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has started testing wildlife for COVID-19. It’s part of a partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Scientists want to make sure a new variant doesn’t emerge in animals and then infect people.

But Kimberlee Beckmen, a wildlife health veterinarian for Fish and Game, says not to worry too much about getting COVID-19 from an animal.

“It’s more a concern of us infecting wildlife and if wildlife could become a reservoir, but that hasn’t been shown yet,” she said.

When she says “reservoir,” she means the risk is that the virus could take hold in an animal population, mutate and infect humans with a new variant.

In Alaska, biologists are collecting samples from a number of mammals: moose that live near residential areas, lynx (because they’ve gotten it in zoos down south) and mustelids — that’s wolverines, minks and martens. There are plans to test caribou and Sitka black tail deer, as well as seals and belugas in the North Slope Borough.

If you’re wondering how you test a beluga for COVID-19 — yes, you swab the blowhole. For other animals, it’s a nasal swab, pretty much the same as how we test people.

“We stick it up in both nostrils, but we go way deeper,” said Beckmen. “I mean, we go way up to the level of the eye and roll it around and then put it in the media and then that gets sent to the lab.”

Other states have tested bears. Beckmen says Alaska will likely do the same when they come out of hibernation because bears that have been exposed to human garbage are at elevated risk for infection.

She says the state has submitted over 100 samples for testing but hasn’t gotten many results back yet because an avian influenza outbreak on the East coast is keeping labs busy.

David Saalfeld is an Anchorage-based wildlife biologist who added COVID-19 testing to his regular fieldwork this winter. He live-traps wolverines and lynx with walk-in traps that don’t harm them. Then he sedates the animals so he can collect samples like nasal swabs and a blood draw.

He says he added COVID screening about halfway through his season.

“So it’d be not a ton of animals, even say two or three wolverine and seven or eight lynx that I sampled,” he said.

There’s currently no evidence that COVID-19 can be passed by handling or eating meat from wild game. Fish and Game recommends hunters use the same precautions as always: wear gloves, clean knives and don’t touch any weird looking tissue.

Hunters can report sick animals or strange behavior to Fish and Game.

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