A new phase for CoVERS: Humans and wildlife

The CoVERS Study is wrapping up a successful Phase I. Since March, with the help of many citizen scientists and veterinarians in the New England area, we have screened over 500 companion and farm animals for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, and we are very happy to report that there have been no positive tests to date. Phase I was a “wide net” approach, where we enrolled as many animals as possible during a period of high community COVID-19 infection. This included many homes with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 in pet owners. Our results suggest that even in these close, home settings, there’s a low risk of human-to-pet transmission. We are performing final data analysis and writing a paper describing all of our findings and will post it as soon as it’s available. Of course, more work still needs to be done to understand if pets are asymptomatically infected, and we still encourage any pet owners to ask another member of their household to care for their pet, or limit interactions while they’re sick out of an abundance of caution.

Now we’re asking new questions about if and how animals are affected by SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19:

Pets and their humans

We are now approved to test humans and we have an antibody test ready to go. Best of all, there’s no blood needed – we can use antibodies that naturally come out of your gums when you rub them with a sponge! This means we have a window into the past and can look for COVID-19 antibodies in both you and your animals to calculate a transmission rate.

We are seeking animal owners in the New England area who are willing to take swabs from their animals as well as their own saliva samples at home and send them back to us. If you have a current or prior positive COVID-19 test, or are in a group at high risk for infection (e.g. healthcare worker in March-May 2020) and want to enroll, please fill out our registration form here. We can’t do this work without you!

What about wildlife?

CoVERS is getting back to our lab’s wildlife surveillance roots. We are screening wildlife, and are primarily targeting two types of animals: Carnivores and bats.

At this time, natural human-to-animal transmission has only been observed in carnivores, so we are screening wild carnivores (e.g. coyotes, seals) in rehabilitation settings. While rehabilitators are using excellent PPE, disinfection and other infectious disease control precautions, the rehab setting is the closest most wild animals will ever get to humans. Monitoring these animals for COVID-19 serves a dual purpose of protecting vulnerable wild populations, and rapidly gathering data to understand the risk of infection in these species.

Bats are exceptionally good viral reservoirs – that means they can be infected by and transmit many viruses without getting sick themselves. While there is convincing evidence that SARS-CoV-2 developed in bats, the types of bats we have in North America are very different, and it’s not yet known if they are able to be infected at all. But even if there’s a low probability of transmission, the consequences to our bat populations could be huge. Many of our bats, especially little brown bats, have been devastated by White Nose Syndrome. And, of course, the establishment of new reservoirs could seriously affect public health control of COVID-19. We are working with Massachusetts and Vermont Departments of Fish & Wildlife, Tufts Wildlife Center, Colrain Center for Conservation and Wildlife, Cape Wildlife Center and Vermont Bat Center to screen bats and their caretakers to collect these important data fast. In addition, we are working with other bat scientists to test environmental samples they collect in the field to monitor healthy, wild populations for evidence of natural human-to-bat spillover.

While rehabilitation settings are a great way to rapidly understand the risk of natural infection, we are studying these animals because human-to-wildlife transmission can happen anywhere. For instance, evidence of SARS-CoV-2 has been found in sewage water which could get into waterways with aquatic mammals, and food waste and trash are commonly handled by urban wildlife like raccoons. There is a need to assess how easily other species could be infected, if they could transmit it and if infection affects their health. If you are a wildlife professional and would like to get involved, let us know.

Why look for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 in pets?

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.

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