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October 7, 2021

Scientists detected six types of coronaviruses in numerous mammals sampled on and near mink farms in Utah, according to a U.S. Geological Survey-led study available today.

An image of a wild mink. (Credit: Tom Koerner, USFWS. Public domain.)

The USGS and federal and state partners investigated Utah mink farms where SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was discovered in farmed mink in August 2020. In this follow-up study, the scientists examined a variety of wild and domestic mammals living on and near the farms to determine if other species were infected with the virus. They found coronaviruses in 72% of the 365 animals studied, including rodents, raccoons, skunks, mink and domestic cats.    

“We did not expect to find such a high prevalence and diversity of coronaviruses in so many animals,” said Hon Ip, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the study. “These findings provide insights into the potential for coronaviruses to recombine and evolve.”

There are two major categories, or genera, of coronaviruses known to infect people: alpha and beta. SARS-CoV-2 is a betacoronavirus. Within these two genera are multiple groups of coronaviruses. The study identified at least three groups of alphacoronaviruses and four groups of betacoronaviruses in the mammals, including 74 detections of SARS-CoV-2 in mink. Over 10% of the animals were infected with more than one coronavirus.

“This research addresses a pressing need, highlighted by the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, to better understand the kinds of coronaviruses that wildlife and other animals can carry,” said Jonathan Towner, a disease ecologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a co-author on the paper.

The USGS partnered with the CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Utah Department of Health and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food on the study. It is published in the journal Viruses.

For further information about USGS wildlife disease research, please visit the USGS National Wildlife Health Center website.