Paul Cadogan and Sarah Wilkinson-Eytle | COVID-19: What have vets got to do with it?
COVID-19 pandemic is spreading like wildfire all over the world, disrupting human lives in unprecedented ways, causing pain and heartache with the loss of life, debilitating illness, loss of livelihood, and restrictions on doing the things we love. Animals are not affected or involved to any extent, so what do vets have to do with it? Well the answer is: quite a bit!
The health and well-being of everything on planet earth is interconnected. To have healthy people, we need healthy animals, healthy plants, and a healthy environment in a closely interlinked circle. Whether we are physicians, veterinarians, environmental professionals, social scientists, all people need to work together to achieve the goal of health and wellness for all – one health.
The interconnectivity of the health of people and animals means that there are diseases that can move across species. These are called zoonoses when they pass from animals to people and anthroponoses when they go the other way (yes they do!). The virus that we now call SARS CoV2, the cause of COVID-19, made the species jump to humans from a coronavirus carried by bats, most likely through another wildlife species that was being caught and eaten by people, and was able to spread from human to human in a highly contagious manner. The rest is history. The COVID-19 pandemic was born.
The fact that SARS CoV2 was so quickly identified was thanks to a programme called PREDICT in which researchers, since its inception in 2009, trapped and tested bats, finding over 500 different coronaviruses in that species. When the novel virus was analysed, it was found to be 96 per cent similar to one of those bat viruses in the database. A couple mutations, and it was ready for its onslaught against us. Programmes such as PREDICT are vital One Health efforts to identify dangerous pathogens in wildlife populations.
OTHER ANIMAL CORONAVIRUSES
So what about other animals? Well, there are many coronaviruses that infect animals, but these aren’t necessarily a threat to humans. Dog, cow, pig, and horse coronavirus diseases tend to be diarrhoea-based while poultry have a respiratory disease called infectious bronchitis, which, by the way, is well controlled by vaccination.
The cat coronavirus disease is very interesting, though. In most cases, it causes a mild diarrhoea, but this can sometimes develop into a severe and fatal disease called Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP). And guess what? It occurs because of an immune system overreaction – a cytokine storm! Sound familiar? It should. That is how severe COVID-19 infections in humans cause so much suffering and death. Veterinary knowledge about FIP in cats can help, and has helped, in dealing with COVID-19 in humans.
Veterinary laboratories around the world are assisting in research and testing. After all, many are well-equipped to handle coronaviruses across species. One health!
How has FIP knowledge helped? Here is an example: You may have heard of the drug remdesivir, which has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of severe COVID-19 in humans. Well, it certainly is not new. The drug GS441524, to which remdesivir is directly related, has been successfully used to treat FIP in cats for quite some time. It was just not licensed for that use because of, well … drug company “politics”! Some scientists believe that GS44154 itself might work better than remdesivir in humans. We will see.
There is also Ivermectin – our famous veterinary worm medicine, which has been found useful in humans for a variety of parasitic conditions. It has shown anti-viral action, too, and in the “test tube”, wipes out the COVID-19 virus within hours. The problem is determining if the safe dose for humans will make it effective in treating those infected with the virus. So far, the answer seems to be “no”, but stay tuned! One health!
COVID-19 AND PETS
What about COVID-19 and our pets? We’ve heard the reports of cats and dogs contracting the virus – even big cats like lions, tigers and pumas. But how significant is this? Well so far, with over 32 million confirmed human infections around the world, the number of times the virus has been detected in pets number less than 20. For pets, COVID-19 is an “anthroponosis”, an example of human-to-animal transmission, and so far there is NO evidence that they play a role in transmitting it back to people. Still we need to be cautious with pets that are in close contact with humans who have COVID-19.
Most recently the introduction of bio-detection dogs that can “sniff out” COVID-19-infected people. They are already being tried out in airports in Dubai and Finland, checking arriving passengers. Their accuracy can be as good as any PCR test (which is still done to confirm their “diagnoses”). This is one more reinforcement of the value of the human-animal bond and animals in general.
In Jamaica, veterinary care is considered an essential service and all our registered veterinarians are Authorised Officers under the Disaster Risk Management Act. It is a great responsibility. In some parts of the world, vets have assisted in the COVID-19 fight by volunteering equipment such as ventilators and PPE from their practices. In some cases, they have volunteered themselves, as trained medical professionals, to play supporting roles under the supervision of physician colleagues where human health care workers have been overwhelmed. Let us all work together to ensure that we never reach that point in Jamaica. One Health!
Dr Paul Cadogan is veterinarian, Denbigh Veterinary Clinic, May Pen, Clarendon; past secretary and PR chair, current member of the executive, Jamaica Veterinary Medical Association. Dr Sarah Wilkinson-Eytle, is veterinarian, Phoenix VetCare, Kingston, and past president of the Jamaica Veterinary Medical Association. Send feedback to email@example.com.