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Vet Med is a pioneer in testing for COVID in animals

In a new series I’ll call “Peering into the Ivory Tower,” I’m reporting some of the amazing things happening within the world-class research institution in our own backyard. This first installment begins with a binturong. 

What is a binturong?

I’m glad you asked. Also known as a bearcat, the binturong is a smallish, mostly arboreal mammal from Southeast Asia. It sports a fluffy prehensile tail as long as its body and its pee smells like popcorn. It’s also one of the latest zoo animals to test positive for COVID at the University of Illinois Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL).

A bintourong. Photo by Joachim S. Miller from Flickr.

Way back in April, 2020, the country’s first such case was announced. That time, it was a Malayan tiger named Nadia from the Bronx Zoo. It made us fear for our pets in a new way and wonder whether we should strap masks across their furry faces (please do not do this). Nadia’s case was confirmed by our very own Vet Med.

Clearly, the VDL was on top of COVID from the very beginning. By mid-March, 2020, Dr. Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist who literally wrote the book on coronaviruses in animals, developed an assay to detect the disease in animals. Soon, samples started pouring in from around the country. 

Today, the VDL has tested more than 2000 animal samples and at least 50 species for COVID. The state’s only veterinary diagnostic lab and a federal site for routine surveillance of foreign animals, the VDL has analyzed samples from gorillas to cattle to dolphins to rats. 

“Our goal is to limit spread within zoos and aquaria and to help veterinarians make informed healthcare decisions for the exotic species in their care,” Wang told me during a recent interview. “Unfortunately, globalization is affecting zoos everywhere. Cooperation and immunization are going to be key in controlling COVID in these populations and our own.”

So far, eight species have tested positive at VDL  domestic cat, tiger, lion, snow leopard, fishing cat, binturong, coatimundi, and gorilla — and 17 animal species have tested positive worldwide. Thankfully, most of the animals that tested positive at VDL have since recovered. But the big cats, especially snow leopards, have not fared as well. Four snow leopards (including one close to home at Bloomington’s Miller Park Zoo) and a lion died. 

Zoo animals are undoubtedly contracting COVID from humans, but Wang notes transmission among animals poses a very real risk in the other direction. It has already happened, of course. In Dutch mink farms, the virus spread among animals after exposure by human workers, and then jumped back. Such events, also predicted for North American deer populations, present opportunities for unpredictable viral mutation.

The lab isn’t just paying attention to COVID in animals. If you’ve ever been tested through the OSF or campus SHIELD system, your little tube of saliva was trucked over to the VDL for analysis. 

“Ours may be the first lab in the world to complete close to 3 million COVID tests,” Wang said. He was on the team that developed the SHIELD test, and received a Presidential Medallion from the University of Illinois for his contributions. 

After COVID, the VDL will continue to be an important resource for surveillance of zoonotic diseases. Wang recently helped sequence a new coronavirus — unrelated to SARS-CoV-2 — in bottlenose dolphins and discovered an emerging virus affecting calves in the U.S. And as the only state lab for veterinary diagnostics, the VDL will continue to support the Illinois livestock industry as well as small animal clinics around the state. 

The College of Veterinary Medicine’s COVID testing program is only one example of the innovation and discovery happening within its facilities on south Lincoln Avenue. If you’re curious what else they get up to, mark your calendar for the return of the Vet Med Open House later in 2022. 

Top photo from the University of Illinois website.

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