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USDA grants $3 million to USF advancing research on the transmission of COVID-19 between humans and animals

The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA), in partnership with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), has granted $3 million to University of South Florida (USF) researchers for a 5-year study  focused on understanding the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) from humans to animals and how this can affect animal and human health.

Andrew Kramer

Dr. Andrew Kramer, assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Kramer) 

Dr. Andrew Kramer is among the researchers involved in the study. He is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the College of Arts and Sciences, teaching undergraduate students biological diversity and statistics to graduate students. Outside of his teaching role, Kramer conducts research related to the ecology of population extinction, species coexistence, species invasions, and emerging diseases.

Funded through the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) program in partnership with the USDA-NIFA, USDA-APHIS, National Health Institute (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), this grant supports the research for Kramer and his colleagues.

“My collaborators and I are trying to figure out how the COVID-19 virus will spread among animals. This project will identify the animals most likely to contract the virus and look at whether they will act as persistent carriers that can infect other animals or people. We will develop ways to predict which animals can get infected by assessing the binding between the spike protein of the virus and animal cells. We can do this without using the virus itself or directly infecting animals. My focus is thinking about how animal interactions, like predation, can lead to higher or lower levels of virus persisting in animal populations,” Kramar said.

Kramer’s collaborators include Dr. Barbara Han at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Dr. Michael Letko at Washington State University, and Dr. Payel Das at IBM Research. Initiated only six months ago, the study is currently advancing through its first research phase.

“My collaborators are using computational tools in the area of AI to predict future virus variants and the mammals they are likely to infect. In my lab we will take this information and make models of how the virus will spread between species, for example between mice and their predators, or several animals sharing a food source. This will help us understand how the number of sick animals depends on contact with humans as well as the set of animals in a given area,” Kramer explained. “Part of the first research phase is to identify the gene sequence for the ACE2 cell receptor in several species of mammals. This is the protein that the COVID-19 virus uses to enter cells, and it differs between species.”

A white-tailed deer fawn about two weeks old, photographed in Orange Walk, Belize. (Photo by Charles J. Sharp)A white-tailed deer fawn about two weeks old, photographed in Orange Walk, Belize. (Photo by Charles J. Sharp)

Creative rendering of SARS-COV-2 virus particles. (Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)Creative rendering of SARS-COV-2 virus particles. (Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

There have been more than 50 species identified to be susceptible to COVID-19. Some examples include mice, mink, and most commonly infected by humans, the white-tailed deer. Kramer and his colleagues hope to expand the list of animals susceptible to the virus and to better understand what other diseases could be passed from animals to humans. This is particularly important as humans depend on animals for certain agricultural needs.

“Animal hosts play a role in many diseases that affect people. We hope that the predictions and tools developed in this project can benefit human and animal health, both for COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases, which are those that humans can get from animal hosts. Our health is not independent from the rest of the organisms we share the Earth with. We also depend on domestic animals as livestock, beasts of burden, and companions which makes their health of great importance as well,” Kramer explained.  

Over the next five years, Kramer and his colleagues will collaborate closely to better understand this transmission. He believes that the methods learned during this study will be applied to other areas in the field of zoonotic diseases, like avian influenza, to create a more effective response to future disease outbreaks.

Learn more about the Department of Integrative Biology’s research.

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