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Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

Animal Disease Labs Step In To Help Meet COVID-19 Testing Needs

Amy Mayer
At the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, Phil Gauger is one of the veterinarians who used sophisticated DNA analysis tools to diagnose porcine epidemic diarrhea virus. Now, the same equipment and expertise is being used in COVID-19 testing.

Many of the public health labs determining whether people have COVID-19 have become at least overworked or, at worst, overwhelmed. Some of the country’s animal disease labs have stepped in to help.

Rodger Main, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Iowa State University, says early in the COVID-19 outbreak, he and leaders from the University of Iowa’s State Hygienic Lab got on the phone to discuss how they could collaborate.

“In that conference call, it became clear what their constraint was, (which) was largely around this high throughput nucleic acid extraction,” Main says. “Those instruments and technologies are things that we use day to day in the diagnostic lab.”

Credit Amy Mayer
Partnerships fostered between the vet diagnostic lab and the State Hygienic Lab because of COVID-19 could lead to additional collaborations in the future, says Rodger Main, director of the Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.

An earlier coronavirus

This might sound familiar: a coronavirus is spreading fast through a population. It’s fatal to some, only a few days of illness for others. At diagnostic labs, staff work around the clock processing samples, confirming the genetics of the virus and trying to re-trace its spread.

That’s what was going on at the Iowa State vet lab when researchers identified the porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) virus.

The disease was known to exist abroad but had never been in the United States before 2013, when piglets started dying of dehydration after they didn’t respond to treatment or recover as they would have from other illnesses. Before veterinarians could get a handle on it, PED spread from the Midwest across much of the country, eventually killing millions of piglets. (Older pigs would get sick, recover, and gain some immunity to it. PED is not a threat to human health.)

The sophisticated DNA testing process used for PED, which is a coronavirus, is the same as what public health labs are now using for COVID-19. In some cases, the exact same machines are now testing human samples.

After the initial call regarding the pandemic, Main says it became obvious how the vet lab could help the public health lab. Both rely on two key tools, the KingFisher 96 high throughput nucleic acid extraction instrument and a real-time PCR testing machine, the ABI 7500. Main says his team in Ames packed some up and sent them to Iowa City, where staff at the State Hygienic Lab were already trained and could use them right away. Very quickly the testing capacity for the COVID-19 virus in Iowa increased. Similar collaborations are happening around the country.

Human animals

The Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab (OADDL) has perhaps gone the farthest the fastest to support testing for COVID-19.

“Turns out, not all animals are humans, but all humans are animals,” says Kenneth Sewell, who oversees OADDL as the vice president for research at Oklahoma State University.

“We are now dually certified,” he says. With the blessing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the animal diagnostic labs, and cooperation from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the OADDL can now test human samples.

The fast-track certification obviously came in response to COVID-19 and with the intention of increasing Oklahoma’s statewide testing capacity. But Sewell says the certification isn’t limited to the current crisis. It allows the animal lab to help with other human conditions in the future, though there aren’t currently any such plans.

In fact, even with how similar the diagnostic work is, including the qualifications and training of the people who work in the labs, Sewell says there was never any plan or expectation that the animal lab would get drafted into service for a human disease outbreak.

But when Oklahoma state officials called upon the public research universities to band together and brainstorm ways to fight COVID-19, one thing that emerged, as it had in Iowa, was the realization that the animal lab was uniquely positioned to ease the burden on the state’s public health system. Sewell says a task force set about making it happen and then things took off quickly.

“We’ve gone from not thinking about this at all to a functioning laboratory in about 12-13 days,” he says. In the first couple of days, the animal lab’s contributions practically doubled COVID-19 testing in Oklahoma. Sewell cautions that figure diminished as private labs got up to speed in the state, but it’s still a significant and necessary role.

“We really need to be testing a lot more people than we’ve been testing,” he says.

Other animal diagnostic labs are exploring whether they, too, might be able to take on some human testing, Sewell says, with some reaching out to him to hear what the process involved.

Credit Amy Mayer
Although this photo was taken at the South Dakota Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory in Brookings, South Dakota, it is the same type of real-time PCR testing machine that Iowa's veterinary lab sent to the state's public health lab.

Not just testing

David Zeman heads up the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians. He says other animal labs have tested pets for possible COVID-19 infection and many have sent ventilators and other equipment to human clinics and hospitals.

The University of Illinois vet diagnostic lab helped confirm the COVID-19 diagnosis of a zoo tiger in New York City.

Zeman says infectious disease monitoring and response is an every-day activity for veterinary diagnosticians, and that may not be the case for public health doctors.

“It’s less of a giant of their activity because we live in a society where we have excellent public hygiene and sanitary sewer and clean water,” he says. “Infectious disease just is not as big a thing as perhaps it was 100 years ago.”

But infectious diseases, including novel ones, continue to spread in animals, especially livestock. So even as they support public health labs in many and new ways, Zeman says the vet diagnostic labs must keep animal health as their top priority.

“Even though they have the resources and skill, they don’t necessarily have the freedom to just drop the main mission or else you’re going to create problems in the food supply.”

To wit: a commercial turkey flock in South Carolina tested positive for a fast-spreading strain of bird flu earlier this month. And pork producers fear the arrival of African swine fever, a virus that has decimated the Chinese hog population and could cost the U.S. pork sector tens of billions of dollars if it were to infect commercial pig farms here.

Iowa State’s Rodger Main applauds the work human health labs are doing, and he says in a post-COVID-19 world, an animal disease outbreak might give them a chance to return the favor.


Support for Harvest Public Media reports on KOSU comes from Oklahoma's Electric Cooperatives, powering and servicing Oklahoma and committed to bringing rural communities to life. Find out more at oaec.coop.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.
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