PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In an effort to predict ‘zoonotic’ disease outbreaks, veterinary researchers in Oregon are beginning to test wild animals for SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19.

Last Thursday, Oregon State University announced that its Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine would test about 1,600 specimens to determine which can carry and spread the coronavirus.

The research will focus on wild animals that are most likely to come into contact with humans, namely mammals like rodents and bats.

If researchers detect the virus within those species, they will then determine if the strain is connected to the recent COVID-19 variants spread by humans or if it has evolved solely from animals.

Dolan, an associate professor of immunology at OSU and lead investigator for the project, asserted that it is unlikely for a virus that has permanently established itself within an animal species to spread among humans.

However, he claimed that such an incident would have “disastrous implications.”

“The reason we’re doing this is that as SARS-CoV-2 transmits among animal species, it could start evolving along its own trajectory and result in a virus that’s sufficiently distinct from the COVID variants currently circulating in humans,” Dolan said in a statement. “That would be like a reset of the whole thing.”

Funding for the two-year project led by Dolan comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The agency has set aside almost $1 million to allow lab technicians to add SARS-CoV-2 tests to the testing panels they’ve been using on animal samples submitted to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and its diagnostic lab.

According to Dolan, the research won’t include non-mammals such as birds and reptiles. It also won’t include domestic and livestock animals because there are pre-existing ‘surveillance measures’ for SARS-CoV-2 among those groups.