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This article will begin by providing an overview of some of the key issues surrounding COVID-19 and how they may be addressed. Then, I’ll provide context on one study (a preprint) which shows the possible infection of dogs with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). My goal is not to provide an academic review of the work in question. However, a brief introduction to animal medicine and emerging infectious diseases will set the standard context I will use throughout my paper. Finally, I’ll offer some solutions to both the human and animal health issues involved in the research to date.
We Need to Address Animals
In our efforts to prevent serious virus mutations, we need to focus on addressing animals’ safety and their ability to transmit disease. These two issues go hand-in-hand. Animals should be studied as an entire species and in controlled environments. In general, it is considered safe for animals to carry out scientific research or to serve as subjects in virology experiments. Furthermore, the risk posed by animals carrying SARS-CoV-2 can be mitigated if those studies occur at specific locations, which is essential for the safety of humans.
To protect animals around the world from further SARS-CoV-2 transmission, appropriate measures must be put in place. As one example, there should be a strong public education campaign to discourage dog owners from allowing contact between their dogs and the public. Additionally, we need a well-vetted plan to ensure the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing protocols have been in place at veterinary hospitals worldwide and at medical facilities in regions where dog ownership appears to be highest. While SARS-CoV-2 does not seem to have any significant evidence of animal-to-human transmission, the animal studies that do exist illustrate clear differences in SARS-CoV-2 strains when compared to seasonal influenza variants (see below), making it vitally important that this information is communicated to our communities.
Animal Studies: A Crucial Part of Public Health Research
Now let’s talk about another essential part of the protection of our communities against future outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2: epidemiological data. Although a relatively recent area of study, epidemiology provides crucial information relating to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in many areas, including the areas where cases are most widespread (see below). These data have helped inform policy decisions made by public health administrators. They help identify areas with high rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection and which have needed additional monitoring strategies. Similarly, epidemiologists need data to assess and monitor whether restrictions can be enacted in response to the current surge of infections. Both of these factors are critical to the progress towards a comprehensive strategy for containing the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Epidemiologic data also have implications for understanding the dynamics and spread of the outbreak. For instance, the presence of clusters of multiple cases in certain countries could indicate the possibility of ongoing community transmission. Likewise, data can allow policymakers to understand why certain communities have been affected differently by the epidemic. The reason might be something else entirely: as long as we don’t know the answer to that question, we simply cannot build effective mitigation policies. We cannot build prevention plans or mitigation programs without knowing if there are or are no cases.
The Role of Scientists and Epidemiologists in Controlling Diseases and Preventing Them from Emergencies
SARS-CoV-2 has the potential to become very real and perhaps worse so than other novel viruses that have emerged over the past few years. That is certainly the case if we continue taking steps to mitigate its effect; however, if we fail to address the issue early and aggressively, then our chance of preventing SARS-CoV-2 from becoming a pandemic becomes difficult to imagine.
Therefore, the best way to prevent future outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 is through science, specifically through research. Most recent papers in scientific journals demonstrate how rapidly and effectively we can conduct SARS-CoV-2 research to develop vaccines, therapeutics, and treatments. But what do scientists do? First, scientists identify SARS-CoV-2, write the genome sequence, create recombinant viruses from the sequence information, and conduct viral particle analyses. When scientists select certain viruses and proteins from them, they conduct genetic and peptide sequencing. This allows researchers to determine and prioritize target proteins in the genome that are required to produce new vaccines and therapeutic products. Next, scientists look at the protein sequences, looking for clues in the protein structure to identify targets in protein structures and design vaccine candidates accordingly. Lastly, scientists conduct animal studies, particularly those involving canine models (see here for a detailed description).
One notable development has seen SARS-CoV-2 infected dogs being treated and given either a combination of placebo and a drug or placebo alone. Given the relatively small sample size and the timing of this experiment, data cannot tell us whether the results were statistically significant or only suggestive of the overall result of treatment. Further, neither of these studies addresses the role and impact of the therapy on the duration and extent of infection, or the number of animals treated. Since we don’t yet know if dogs are infected following treatment, though, it’s unclear how much significance this difference could hold. Still, these studies do show the possible impact of drugs on the severity of symptoms and how quickly they affect antibody levels. Because dogs have developed stronger antibodies following treatment, an improved prognosis could be observed as animals recovered from infection.
It Is Not Too Late to Develop Our Testing Protocols
As discussed above, many aspects need to be taken into account when designing vaccination programs. It is important, of course, that the vaccine development protocol considers the cost, time, and resource requirements of vaccine development as well as its implications on testing protocols, availability of personnel, and so forth. In addition, the design of vaccination plans must take into account the fact that a significant portion of patients may receive the vaccination as opposed to as an adjuvant alone, especially if the vaccine requires storage or special handling. Regardless of where the vaccine was administered, vaccination guidelines must consider how long it should take to prepare and administer it — and how long after the vaccine will remain effective. All in all, vaccine designers now need to carefully weigh both economic and logistical considerations in developing plans for vaccine campaigns in comparison to their own prior experience, to ensure that they are prepared for a scenario in which infections can emerge and that this is done adequately and strategically.
Sit, T. H., Brackman, C. J., Ip, S. M., Tam, K. W., Law, P. Y., To, E. M., ... & Peiris, M. (2020). Infection of dogs with SARS-CoV-2. Nature, 586(7831), 776-778.