When people think about how the pandemic started, reports of the virus spreading in a Wuhan wet market may come to mind, but these interactions with wildlife are also common in the U.S. National Health Reporter Erin Billups takes a look at the need for greater virus surveillance.

The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic are seemingly removed from American society. It is still up for debate how SAR-CoV-2 began its devastating assault, but experts have known for some time that it is possible for a dangerous pathogen to crop up in the U.S. particularly as human life continues to encroach on wildlife. 

“They always say, ‘we don't know what's in the forests of Southeast Asia’ or something like that. But just the same, we don't really know what's in a lot of the wild birds coming through the United States,” said Isabel Francisco, a postdoctoral veterinary fellow at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. 

Francisco helps lead the NYC Virus Hunters Program, a team of high schoolers looking for and examining pathogens birds may be carrying into their communities. The student scientists work side by side with career scientists gathering and testing specimens.

“We're looking for, like bird poop, not too dry, because when it's wet we can know that there's viruses live in it,” said high school senior Shatoni Bailey.

With the emergence of the omicron variant, the world is reminded, real-time, how interconnected we are. 

“If you don't look, you don't find these things. And so it's very important that we look everywhere and that we look carefully for these kinds of things,” said Florian Krammer, a professor of microbiology at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.

While the U.S. has stepped up its sequencing of coronavirus tests to try and monitor spread of the virus, experts like Krammer say more needs to be done to monitor wildlife as well. 

“We now know that the virus SARS-CoV-2 jumped into white tailed deer populations in the U.S.” said Krammer. “We need to know about these things because the virus could adapt to these animals, change and then jump back into humans and might have changed enough so that we can’t neutralize it anymore.”

There is a pretty extensive global surveillance system for influenza, which is a virus many experts predict could fuel the next pandemic.

“The problem is, it's not just flu as we see now, right? There are other viruses out there, and for many of these viruses, we have no infrastructure at all,” said Krammer. 

So far, they haven’t found the flu, but they have identified several other pathogens, even releasing a paper documenting their discovery of Newcastle Disease virus found in rock doves, also known as pigeons. It’s generally harmless to humans, but can have economic impacts. 

“If those birds migrate but don't show the disease, they might or might not actually come close to a poultry farm. All those birds might have to be culled. So there actually have been outbreaks in the United States before,” said Christine Marizzi, a partner in the virus hunters program and the chief scientist for the non-profit Biobus.

These experts say more funding to build proper wildlife surveillance is needed, as well as more hands on deck.

“This is a power of the community, as I call it, like, we look where nobody else is looking or what actual research might not be interested in, for one reason or the other. So students really were interested in ‘what can I do?’ and research was really missing that data,” said Marizzi.