The COVID-19 pandemic in humans is caused by a virus that originated in bats, likely passed through an intermediate species and has now infected at least two house cats and eight exotic big cats at the Bronx Zoo. This does not mean that you should immediately quarantine your pets; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information about keeping you and your pets safe. But the news prompts numerous questions about the science behind diseases that spread from animals to humans, known as zoonotic diseases, as well as the transmission of diseases from humans to animals. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the reality that human and animal health is interconnected, and that cross-species transmissions can have devastating global health consequences - making it imperative that we invest in research to prevent future incidents.
Zoonotic diseases are far more common than you might think. In my lifetime, and I’m not quite 40, the world has witnessed several outbreaks of zoonotic diseases: HIV/AIDS crossed from chimps to humans in the 1920s in Africa but wasn’t identified until 1981. The Nipah virus was detected in Malaysia in 1998 and spread to humans from bats via infected pigs. More recently, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus spread from bats or civet cats to humans in 2002, avian influenza emerged from poultry in 2003, and swine flu, which emerged in Mexico in 2009 was a combination of bird, pig and human influenza viruses. And don’t forget Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which has been linked to camels and was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Genetic sleuthing suggests that Ebola, which spread across Africa in recent years, likely jumped from bats or nonhuman primates to humans. It is still unclear which wildlife species may be susceptible to COVID-19, or what might happen if the virus recombines genetic segments with naturally occurring coronaviruses in those species -- an unsettling knowledge gap.
I got my start studying another major group of zoonotic diseases (prions) that includes mad cow disease, which jumped from cows to humans in 1996. As a veterinary scientist, I studied the mechanisms underlying susceptibility to cross-species transmission of this group of diseases. One of the discoveries I found most disconcerting - albeit fascinating - was that some pathogens can change dramatically upon transmission to a new species. This means that, in some cases, the pathogen can become infectious to new hosts, depending on their genetic background, making it extremely challenging to predict their movement between and across human and animal populations. We may be witnessing this same phenomenon in COVID-19, as the virus is widely believed to have originated in bats, crossed to an intermediate host, and has now spread rapidly to infect millions of humans globally.
The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund audacious research addressing the biggest challenges in food and agriculture, including epidemic diseases. This year, FFAR is supporting Veterinary Fellowships to conduct zoonotic disease and agricultural productivity research, including economic modeling to bolster the food supply and producers during crises. Limited funding exists to support experiential learning opportunities in the agricultural sciences for future veterinary scientists. To meet this critical unmet need, FFAR is waiving the matching requirement for the FFAR Veterinary Fellows program, as we believe that training the next generation of veterinary scientists to predict, prevent and respond to pandemics like COVID-19 is critical for the U.S. food and agriculture community.
Cross-species, multi-disciplinary research is important to preventing and responding to current and future pandemics while also providing the peace of mind that our food supply is safe and secure. The public relies on farmers and ranchers for safe and affordable food; the least we can do is support farmers and ranchers, and the public, with the best science we can offer.
Dr. Tim Kurt is a Scientific Program Director at FFAR who oversees research programs in the animal and veterinary sciences, as well as the FFAR Vet Fellows training program for veterinary students to conduct research in agricultural production and zoonotic diseases.