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Farm Animals Tested for COVID Susceptibility

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Scientists and staff at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have been studying Covid-19 for over a year-and-a-half to ensure that America’s agricultural system is safe.

“ARS implemented emergency research in February 2020 in response to COVID-19 incursions in the United States,” said Cyril Gay, ARS senior national program leader for animal production and protection. “The aim of the research was to confirm that farm animals were not susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and remove potential concerns of farm animals becoming infected and transmitting the virus to people through direct contact or through agricultural products.”

ARS has laboratories and personnel dedicated to the research of especially dangerous pathogens, including emerging zoonotic agents such as SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 is the term used for the disease, while SARS-CoV-2 is the acronym for the name of the viruses that causes COVID-19.

“ARS research clearly provided science-based evidence that eggs and live poultry, cattle, swine, and arthropods (mosquitoes, ticks, flies), were not able to replicate the virus and become a source of infection for people,” Gay said. Of all the farmed animals studied, only deer were susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. “Interestingly, deer did not get sick, but they quickly spread the virus to other deer.”

A group of chicks, cows in a field, and a piglet.

ARS implemented emergency research in response to COVID-19 in February 2020, and their research provided science-based evidence that eggs and live poultry, cattle, and swine were not able to replicate the virus and become a source of infection for people. (Photos by Keith Weller, K3627-16 and K4328-8) (Photo by Scott Bauer, K7623-1)

ARS included white tail deer in its investigation because the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus cell receptor closely aligns with the sequence of the human receptor, and because some white tail deer are farmed.

As the United States and the rest of the world reeled from the effects of a global pandemic, ARS researchers from the National Animal Disease Center, in Ames, IA; the National Poultry Research Center, in Athens, GA; and the Arthropod-Borne Animal Disease Research Unit, in Manhattan, KS, braved the then-unknown dangers of COVID-19. Researchers followed health and safety protocol guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure their safety as well as the safety of ARS support staff and collaborators.

ARS has a long history of implementing emergency research in response to disease outbreaks. Recent examples include the pandemic H1N1 in 2009 and a highly pathogenic avian influenza virus outbreak in 2014-2015. USDA is a key contributor to our nation’s National Biodefense Strategy, closely with public health agencies to effectively respond and mitigate emerging zoonotic pathogens that pose a threat to the health of people and farm animals.

“A critical aspect of our job is to respond rapidly and implement emergency research on a disease outbreak and quickly test or develop veterinary medical countermeasures to prevent and control the spread of the disease,” Gay said. “By mitigating the impact of diseases, we lower the threat it could cause to U.S. agriculture, our economy, and our citizens.”

– By Scott Elliott, ARS Office of Communications