Jeff Gruntmeir wins the 2024 early-stage investigator research poster competition

Person poses in front of the EPI vertical banner that reads "understanding global emergence and the spread of infectious disease."

In just eight months of a project funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, a team of researchers collected a total of 333 samples from 131 individual mammals that comprise 20 different species from 19 states in the United States.

“[The sample testing] looks for the molecular detection of the SARS-COV-2 virus in swabs taken from those animals,” explained Jeff Gruntmeir, Ph.D, an assistant scientist in the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.

Gruntmeir won first place in the early-stage investigator poster competition at EPI Research Day 2024. His research conducts SARS-CoV-2 surveillance by collecting opportunistic samples from native, non-endangered mammals in wildlife rehabilitation facilities across the U.S., including national territories and American Indian reservations.

“At the end of this study, there may be other questions that remain or opportunities to further leverage this network of a really devoted and hardworking group of individuals in this wildlife rehab community,” Gruntmeir said.

Gruntmeir acts as a scientific coordinator for the project: creating contacts with collaborators, managing the permits, enrolling different facilities and more. Once collected, the facilities ship the animal samples to the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) for testing the samples and reporting the results.

“There’s a whole story of transmission and epidemiology, and the ecology behind that result,” Gruntmeir said.

UF postdoctoral researcher Jeff Gruntmeir uses a microscope in an EPI lab.

Is the result more than just a positive or negative? Is there truly an infection? Is there an exposure to a dead virus or a related virus? If the infection is a SARS-COV-2 infection, is there any kind of variance that occurs post-infection? Discussion with the USDA helps analyze the results for accuracy and identify gaps that need further exploration. Furthermore, summarizing the results of species can determine which animals are more susceptible to infection and evaluate why they are more at risk.

Another component of the study consists of a Biosecurity Assessment Survey to learn about the practices, protocols and techniques applied in each facility. Understanding infectious disease containment and personal protection within the facilities will help build a guideline of best practices to help protect the animal handlers and animals from exposure to infections that can cross the species barrier.

“I was the one presenting, but it was really a team effort,” Gruntmeir said. “Collaborative team effort is what really makes projects successful.”

Though it all happened so fast, it’s a great feeling to have the recognition for the hard work from a huge team effort from the USDA, TGen and rehab facilities liaisons, Gruntmeir said. The team hopes to get nationwide coverage for study enrollment to mitigate any geographic holes in addressing risks of SARS-CoV-2 transmission to U.S. native mammals.

Sars-CoV-2 surveillance among U.S. native wild mammals entering rehabilitation facilities


  • Jeff Gruntmeir – Department of Comparative, Diagnostic, and Population Medicine, Emerging Pathogens Institute, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida
  • Beth Nielsen – Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Flagstaff, AZ
  • Haley Yaglom – Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), Flagstaff, AZ
  • Jessica Siegal-Willott – United States Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS), Riverdale, MD
  • Martha Keller – United States Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS), Riverdale, MD
  • Lucas Robertson – United States Department of Agriculture, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS), Riverdale, MD
  • Jim Wellehan – Department of Comparative, Diagnostic, and Population Medicine, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida
  • Maureen Long – Department of Comparative, Diagnostic, and Population Medicine, Emerging Pathogens Institute, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida


Transmission of the respiratory virus SARS-CoV-2 and its related variants to companion animals, farmed animals, zoo animals, and wildlife has been detected worldwide. In the US, SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in wildlife species in 32 states in a relatively limited number of species. Scientific knowledge is incomplete concerning current transmission and the reservoir potential of native wild mammal populations in the US states and territories. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators are uniquely positioned to provide opportunistic sampling for surveillance of pathogens in wildlife, especially SARS-CoV-2. The goal of this project is to enroll 50 wildlife rehabilitation facilities in the United States and Territories for testing wildlife for SARS-CoV-2 presented to these facilities over a two-year period.


This project is ongoing and following appropriate permissions and permitting for scientific collection from wildlife specific to each state, samples consisting of nasal and fecal swabs are collected and tested for SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acids and remnant blood for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Samples are tested by Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), a third-party not for profit test facility, for molecular and antibody testing. All presumptive positive samples are then sent to the National Veterinary Services Lab for confirmation. In addition, a biosecurity survey is completed by each facility to gain understanding of biosafety procedures and the level of biosecurity maintained at facilities.


Preliminary progress and results in the first six months of this project include scientific collection permissions or permitting in 22/50 states, contact with 101 facilities, resulting in enrollment of 17 wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Altogether, 333 samples collected from 131 individuals have been submitted from 20 species with 2/333 samples testing presumptive positive. A total of19 facilities have provided biosecurity assessments including two not participating in sample submission.


While facility enrollment, sample submission and testing are still ongoing, preliminary results suggest that exposure and active infections among US native wildlife entering state licensed wildlife rehabilitation facilities is limited. With accumulation of data from the biosecurity assessment, we will be able to provide a comprehensive understanding of the level of biosecurity across facilities which will aid in development of ‘best practices’ for prevention of spread of SARS-CoV-2 from handlers to wildlife and between animals undergoing rehabilitation.