The CoVERS study, run by the Runstadler lab at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, seeks to monitor SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 infection and transmission at the human-animal interface. This study 1) collects specimens from diverse species that we hypothesize are susceptible to coronavirus infection, 2) tests those specimens using a dual screen RT-PCR and ELISA, 3) sequence the viral genome from presumptive positives, and 4) tests if presumptive positive virus is viable using in vitro techniques.
Together, these data help us understand what species can get this coronavirus, if animals can further transmit it to other animals, if the virus causes disease in some animals, and if the virus needs to mutate to infect different species.
We are currently screening animal owners, domestic pets, farm animals, zoo animals, wildlife and animal workers for coronavirus infection and/or antibodies.
What is the coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can infect a variety of animal species, including humans. In humans, most coronaviruses cause mild respiratory disease and are part of a group of viruses that cause the common cold. There are also many other kinds of coronaviruses that live in animal “reservoirs,” in which they are able to infect and transmit, but not cause disease in that species. When a virus in a reservoir species is transmitted into a new species and causes disease, it is called a “spillover” event.
The current COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a spillover event from an unknown animal into humans, likely in the Wuhan region of China in mid-November 2019. This virus is now named SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2), because it is genetically related to the 2003 SARS-coronavirus. Thus far, SARS-CoV-2 appears highly transmissible and able to cause more severe disease than most of the coronaviruses already circulating in humans.
The currently known symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, are primarily fever (87.9%) and dry cough (67.7%). Additional, but less common symptoms, may include fatigue (38.1%), sputum/phlegm (33.4%), shortness of breath (18.6%), muscle pain (14.8%), sore throat (13.9%), headache (13.6%), and chills (11.4%). This is a very active area of research to date.
Can my dog/cat/horse/animal get the coronavirus?
The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that, “There have been fewer than 25 reports from around the world of pets (dogs and cats) being infected with SARS-CoV-2… There is little to no evidence that domestic animals are easily infected with SARS-CoV-2 under natural conditions and no evidence to date that they transmit the virus to people.”
Our data support this early assessment. In addition, of the few confirmed cases in animals, it does not currently appear that COVID-19 caused serious illness.
However, the CDC recommends that if you are sick, you should ask someone else in your home to care for your pets. If that’s not possible, do your best to minimize your physical contact during your illness, using a mask and washing your hands regularly.
Whose can be a part of the study?
We are recruiting animal owners in the New England area for our animal-only and animal+owner home kits, as well as patients visiting Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University. We are happy to include most pets, including dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats, horses, pig, sheep, cattle, and other species. For the safety of our veterinary staff, we will not enroll animals who are aggressive and pose a serious bite risk.
Do I have to be sick to be included in the study?
In Phase II of the study, it is important for us to enroll participants who were likely to be infected to study the rate of transmission. Therefore, we are currently focusing on recruiting individuals who have a current or prior positive COVID test (swab or antibody) or people who are more likely to have been infected prior to wide test availability (e.g. healthcare workers who were in hospitals in March – May 2020).
What will you learn from the questionnaire samples?
We use saliva and nose/mouth swabs to see if we can detect any coronavirus in them, and to better understand how this virus spreads and changes.
We use gum swabs to detect any antibodies against coronavirus, which tells us if a person or animal was infected in the past.
Your questionnaire results will be used to see if there are behaviors that might increase the risk of coronavirus transmission from humans to animals.
Will you give me my results?
We are unable to return any human results. This is because we are an academic veterinary lab and not certified for clinical human testing. In addition, none of our tests or equipment are FDA-approved for diagnostic coronavirus testing. However, we can return animal swab results if you opt-in during the questionnaire or ask us by phone or email. Results reporting guidelines were determined by the Tufts Health Sciences IRB and are in accordance with comparable studies in the US. Please remember that results from this study are considered research-grade only and should not be used for any diagnoses.
Why don't you call your results conclusive or confirmed?
In order for animal or human diagnostic assays to be considered appropriate for clinical use, the FDA (human) or USDA (animal) must approve all aspects of the test, from the components of the kit to the machines and software used to measure output. In an epidemic situation, the CDC has additional supervisory and regulatory responsibilities. The CDC has issued guidance for laboratories which we follow to the best of our abilities, but we do not have the CDC “RT-PCR kit” nor the specific model of equipment they require. Importantly, clinical-grade tests can only be performed in CLIA-certified labs. We are an academic research lab and not CLIA-certified, and the tests we are running are not FDA, USDA or CDC-approved. Our tests and results are research-grade only and more likely to include incorrect or inaccurate results (i.e. false positives and false negatives).
What is your protocol?
We ask for one nasal swab and one oral swab from enrolled animals. Both swabs are placed in a single vial with viral transport media and held in a freezer prior to transfer to the lab. Human saliva samples are directly spit into a 5ml collection tube and held in a freezer.
When samples get to the lab, we perform RNA extraction in BSL2+ conditions and perform semi-quantitative real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) using reagents that target and amplify a signal only from SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA. We are using primers designed by Peiris et al, which the WHO has listed as viable protocol. We perform preliminary screening on all samples for the viral ORF1b-nsp14 gene and a beta-actin internal control that has been designed to cover all relevant species. Samples that are positive by the preliminary screen are then re-tested for the viral N gene. Samples with good internal controls that are positive for both ORF and N are presumptive positive.
All presumptive positive samples will be further investigated by culture and sequencing. In vitro culture will take place under secure BSL3 conditions at the Tufts New England Regional Biosafety Laboratory. Swab media will be added to Vero and 293T cells to determine if virus is viable. Previously extracted RNA will be used to PCR amplify and sequence ~350bp fragments using the ARTIC Network protocol and RAMPART-based sequencing on the Oxford Nanopore Technology MinION platform.
We are now collected gum swabs from both humans and animals for antibody testing. This involves rubbing a special sponge against your or your pet’s gums and holding it in the mouth for 1-5 minutes to collect saliva. The pet saliva collectors have a long, grippable handle and can be gently chewed by pets to allow time for saliva collection.
We are following the protocol developed by the Krammer lab for ELISA testing.
Will I be contacted after I get my animal's results?
After you receive your animal’s coronavirus results, we may follow up with you at a later point in time for more information for research purposes only if you opt-in during the questionnaire. You are not required to respond to any communications from CoVERS.
What will happen to my animal's sample(s) after the study?
We will remove all personal information from your animal’s sample and store it in our secure freezers so that researchers can use it in the future, unless you request otherwise.
Why are you testing animals during an epidemic?
Are you using testing supplies that could be used to diagnose people or you could give to state, clinical, or hospital labs?
We are not. The reagents (ingredients) and equipment we use are not approved by the FDA for clinical use, even under current emergency use authorization, and we do not anticipate this will change. We have donated and will continue to donate what material, equipment, and personal protective equipment (PPE) we can to Tufts Medical Center and other local hospitals.
What can I do to help stop the spread of the coronavirus?
To help your community “flatten the curve“:
- Practice social distancing, avoid visiting friends, and do not allow others into your home.
- Limit travel outside the home, even if you don’t feel sick.
- Do not join gatherings of more than a few people and remove yourself from any gathering where someone exhibits symptoms of illness.
To prevent COVID-19:
- Wash your hands frequently with soap, scrubbing for at least 20 seconds.
- When hand washing is not available, use hand sanitizer after touching objects in public such as door handles or shopping carts.
- Avoid touching your face, especially near the eyes and mouth. (Sorry, we know this one’s tough! Protip: If you have long hair, wear it up and out of your face.)
If you feel sick right now and it is not severe or an emergency:
- Contact your physician or local department of public health to determine if you should get a federally approved coronavirus test or need additional medical care.
- Self-isolate as much as possible for 14 days or until you get back a confirmed negative result from a federally approved test.
- Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow. Wash your hands and arm frequently.
- If possible, separate yourself from others in your household, ideally using a separate room and bathroom.
- Use a face mask to avoid spreading droplets via coughing or sneezing if you live with others or must go into public.
If you have having a medical emergency, always call 9-1-1.
If you are seeking medical guidance for yourself, we recommend that you speak directly with your physician or call the Massachusetts COVID-19 information line at 1-877-211-6277.
Who do I contact with questions?
If you are a clinic or research lab interested in collaboration, please contact Kaitlin Sawatzki for animal inquiries or Nichola Hill for human subject inquiries, by email or phone, at 508-263-0074.
If you have other questions about the study or represent a media organization, please contact Jonathan Runstadler, by email or phone, at 508-887-4552.