Cat Urbigkit: Pandemic Demonstrated Connections Between Humans, Animals, And Environment


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By Cat Urbigkit, columnist for Range Writing

Twenty-one years ago, a week after terrorists hijacked four airliners in the September 11 attacks on America, federal officials also responded to the worst bioterrorist attack on American soil.

Anthrax-contaminated anonymous letters had been sent to members of the media and Congress, and contamination from those letters resulted in the deaths of five Americans and illness in 17 others. When federal officials closed the books on the “Amerithrax” investigation nine years later, it had been two years since the prime suspect in the attack had committed suicide.

Anthrax had been used as a bioweapon, and this attack prompted Congress to tighten safeguards against select biological agents and toxins, including anthrax and brucellosis—diseases most commonly associated with animals. Anthrax and brucellosis are also classified as zoonoses, which are diseases that can spread between animals and humans. Six out of ten human infectious diseases are zoonotic.

A few years after the anthrax attack, public health and veterinary officials came together to discuss the links between animal health, human health and environmental health and advocated a collaborative approach to combating these health threats that would integrate all three sectors into a “One Health” involves” perspective and work on different levels, from local to global.

Fast forward to 2017 when a group of scientists from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of the Interior called a meeting in Washington, DC to discuss zoonotic diseases of the greatest national importance Importance to be identified by health professionals for humans, animals and the environment as part of the One Health approach.

The key factors considered in developing the priority zoonosis list were: pandemic/epidemic potential, severity of the disease, economic impact on the United States, potential for introduction or amplified transmission, and national security (the potential of the disease to be used for bioterrorism).

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This meeting led to the formation of a Ranking of national priorities of zoonoses as follows:

1. Zoonotic flu (Influenza A viruses come in many species, from birds to whales)

2. Salmonellosis (a foodborne disease caused by bacteria that affects wildlife, livestock and humans)

3. West Nile Virus (the leading cause of mosquito-borne diseases in the US)

4. Plague (caused by bacteria Yersinia pestisoften in wild rodents, with transmission to humans often through domestic cats, which are highly susceptible to infection)

5. Emerging coronaviruses (including severe acute respiratory syndromes such as SARS and MERS)

6. Rabies (an almost universally fatal disease)

7. Brucellosis (found in bison and elk in this region, causes occasional outbreaks in cattle and is responsible for about 100 human cases per year in the US)

8. Lyme disease (the most common vector-borne pathogen in the US, caused by ticks)

The priority list was developed in 2017 — several years before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but the 2017 list and the One Health approach have remained a cornerstone of infectious disease surveillance since the pandemic began. While much attention has focused on the availability of coronavirus tests and vaccines for the human population, other important work has been done in animal health and environmental health.

Environmental health officials launched a program to monitor sewage systems to detect the coronavirus. One of the complicating factors with this coronavirus is that a person can remain asymptomatic while actively shedding the virus and infecting others. Therefore, sewage-based epidemiology became a method to predict case numbers and hospitalizations, and to gather data from seasons and waves of cases as the pandemic continued.

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At the same time, experimental coronavirus vaccines have been developed for a variety of wild animal species, with a particular focus on wild feline species, which appear to be highly susceptible to the virus. Vaccinating wild animals could not only improve outcomes for rare species, but also reduce the likelihood of further virus mutations spreading back to humans. Experimental vaccines for multiple species are being tested in zoos and animal shelters around the world.

When a SARS-CoV-2 outbreak (the official name of the new coronavirus) hit mink farms, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) officials began inspecting wild and domestic animals on and near mink farms in Utah testing. Their efforts revealed that 72% of the animals sampled harbored at least one coronavirus, including wild mink living near the farms, as well as domestic cats, mice, raccoons and striped skunks. The unexpectedly high seroprevalence rate in these locations suggests that they “could be potential hotspots for future viral transmission between species and the emergence of new pandemic coronaviruses.”

It is routine for wildlife and veterinary officials to collect nasal swabs and/or blood samples to test animals for antibodies to a variety of viruses, samples from large game animals killed by hunters, animals killed in vehicle accidents, both wild and domestic animals in the vicinity collect from zoos and other wildlife institutions. These routine disease surveillance efforts helped further document coronavirus in animal populations and alerted health officials that with the virus circulating among wildlife populations and in the environment, eradication efforts were unlikely to succeed.

As the coronavirus outbreak spread, researchers around the world began testing animals in captivity to see which species might be susceptible to the disease. When an APHIS research project found that white-tailed deer could shed the virus in captivity, wild deer sampling was initiated in four Midwestern states and showed that about 40% of the sampled animals tested positive for the virus. The testing spread to deer populations in other states, with reports of 30-40% positivity, and coincided with spikes in human infections. While the virus appeared to have jumped from humans to white-tailed deer at least six times, the deer also spread the infection among themselves. Of the 30 states that surveyed their deer populations, 24 found positive cases. Earlier this year, a mule deer in Utah tested positive for the virus.

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Routine samples taken by veterinarians on pets provided further insights. German researchers used surplus laboratory material collected by veterinarians during routine diagnostic sampling of cattle to detect coronavirus, suggesting cattle became infected after contact with infected humans during the peak of the pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 evidence in the United States now includes a variety of wildlife species, from otters and manatees to beavers and lynx.

This coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a real test of the usefulness of a one-health strategy in tackling a zoonosis. While most of the pieces of this puzzle have slipped under the public radar, I believe One Health’s response to a global pandemic caused by zoonotic diseases has validated the wisdom of uniting human, animal and environmental health response.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher living on the pasture in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in the Cowboy State Daily.

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