The goal of CoVERS is to rapidly respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our research lab has expertise in surveillance of viral pathogens in wildlife (such as influenza and phocine distemper virus) which uses the same kinds of collection techniques, tests and analysis tools that are desperately needed for coronavirus testing. But testing for viruses in wild animals is a very different beast than testing for a novel, pandemic virus in humans that is on a trajectory to infect millions of individuals. We are bridging the gap by asking questions at the animal-human interface.

So why pets first? There are some great reasons.

  • We needed to begin this study as soon as possible, as SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is a highly transmissible virus that is rapidly spreading through the world and our region. Academic research institutions have a longer process to review and approve use of human subjects and samples than they do for privately owned animals. We were able to go from study concept to sample collection in three weeks thanks to the fantastic support at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, Cummings Veterinary Medical Center and the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance (CEIRS). Now, owners of animals receiving emergency care at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center can easily opt-in to our study to help us learn more about the novel coronavirus.
  • We love our critters! A lot of people agree with us and are concerned that they might be able to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to their pets. During the 2003 SARS-CoV outbreak, some cats, dogs and rats were found to be infected. There already have been news reports that three dogs (two in Hong Kong, one in the US) and four domestic cats (two in the US, one in Belgium and one in Hong Kong) tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, but with mild or no clinical signs of disease. The USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratories has recently confirmed the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in tigers and lions at a zoo in New York. Another study identified coronavirus antibodies in otherwise healthy cats in a shelter. These reports suggest that cats and dogs could be infected by this novel coronavirus, and we hypothesize that many animals in close contact with humans are susceptible to infection.
  • If animals can be infected, we don’t know if they can pass it on. This is important to know for two reasons. 1) Do we need to modify quarantine procedures with household animals in mind? 2) Do we need to monitor farm and agricultural species to protect our food supply? There is no data about the role domestic and agricultural animals might have in this pandemic, and we are committed to immediately publishing our data to give other researchers and policy makers a fighting chance.
  • We want to protect our veterinarians, staff, students and you. While our veterinary hospitals and those around the country are modifying their biosafety procedures to address COVID-19, we are making our results immediately available to give instant feedback to administrators to help them determine if policies should be modified.

There’s one more reason why we think it’s more important than ever to look at animals right now…

  • To prevent the next pandemic from ever starting. Coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, which means it was originally in an animal host and spilled over into humans. The more we know about what is happening at the genetic level that allows a virus to 1) move from one species into another and 2) become highly transmissible, the better we can actively look for it in animals before it ever makes the leap.

May 1, 2020 – This post has been updated to include recent data of human to animal transmission events.