USGS Director Shuts Down Study on Coronavirus Impacts on Wild Ferret Populations

Published Sep 9, 2022

What Happened: The Director of the US Geological Survey (USGS) prevented scientists from conducting research investigating the impacts of the novel coronavirus on an endangered ferret species, the black-footed ferret.

Why It Matters: By halting a scientific study that was already approved based on its scientific merit, agency officials prioritized politics over science. Federal science-based agencies like USGS have a duty to conduct critically important scientific research, research which can be utilized to enhance and protect public health and the environment nationwide.

The Director of the US Geological Survey (USGS), James Reilly, interfered with scientists’ ability to conduct critical analysis on the impacts of the novel coronavirus in a ferret species, the black-footed ferret. Scientists were prevented from examining the effects of a life-threatening virus on an endangered species. USGS neglected one of the agency’s commitments in its mission statement to provide rigorous and unbiased information on threatened and endangered species.

The National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) is the only federal lab in the nation dedicated to work on high-risk, infectious diseases in wildlife populations. In September 2020, NWHC scientists learned that Reilly had shut down the black-footed ferret study, a study that had already undergone a review by agency scientists to ensure that the research was adhering to scientific protocols. USGS scientists said that Reilly stated he had concerns that the research could accidentally result in unsafe outcomes, such as causing possible mutations in the novel coronavirus or disease transmission outside the laboratory. A senior USGS employee stated, “What Reilly’s saying is absolutely untrue.” NWHC’s status as a Biosafety Level 3 lab would make such a scenario highly unlikely because labs with this designation follow strict safety procedures and microbiological lab practices.

In mid-July 2020, the NWHC Director approved a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposal to investigate whether vaccines could protect this ferret species. In addition to the black-footed ferret being listed as one of the country’s most endangered mammals, this species is also highly susceptible to respiratory infections. Research has shown that ferrets can contract COVID-19, making them an important species to study in the development of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. However, in early September 2020, Reilly carried out the unusual step of stopping the project.

By burying a study examining the impacts of COVID-19 on the black-footed ferret, USGS sidelined its own scientific integrity guidelines. The agency also undermined its own mission of serving the nation by providing reliable scientific information for the benefit of animals, humans, and the environment. Despite a stringent agency review process designed to ensure that scientific research is conducted safely and ethically, federal scientists were restricted from conducting critical scientific research in a highly unusual and nonstandard process. With the evidence suggesting that political considerations were prioritized over science, USGS NWHC scientists were prevented from conducting research that could have provided important information on the novel coronavirus and its effect on an endangered species.