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Researchers put finishing touches on biosecurity tool to help prevent, minimize future pandemics

Three veterinarians with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) traveled to the West Coast recently to gather input for a project funded under the American Rescue Plan Act’s $300 million provision to conduct monitoring and surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 in susceptible animals.

During the visit, the team put the finishing touches on a biosecurity tool for the Zoo and Aquarium Serology Study to help APHIS accomplish its goal of building an early warning system to potentially prevent or limit the next zoonotic disease outbreak or global pandemic.

“The biosecurity tool is a complete assessment of each facility’s characteristics and practices used to protect their guests, workers and animals from SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Steven Rekant, Public Health Veterinary Medical Officer. “It is important to understand how humans and animals and environments depend on each other, this tool helps us recognize how they interact together.”

The APHIS team met with experts to gather information on SARS-CoV-2 biosecurity lessons learned and best practices within zoos and aquariums. They collected feedback from personnel across different levels, from management to veterinarians to the handlers that interact with animals daily, which will help them fine-tune the research data for the final product.

“I learned something from everyone we talked to, they're all experts in their own field,” said Dr. Stephanie Wire, Project Lead, Zoo and Aquarium Serology Study. “They are extremely knowledgeable about the husbandry practices and their needs -- I find that fascinating.”

The Zoo and Aquarium Serology Study consists of three parts: the first is a serology study, which is acquiring samples from species in zoos and aquariums that have been collected prior to and since the beginning of the pandemic, which can be serum, plasma or blood samples; the second is a biosecurity assessment, which is a complete assessment of the facilities’ characteristics and practices used to protect guests, workers and animals from SARS-CoV-2; the third is sampling peridomestic animals, which are free-ranging wildlife that live at and around the zoos, such as nuisance animals like mice, rats and raccoons to better understand their potential role in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

The full range of species that are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 is currently unknown, however, studies like this one are working to identify animals that may become infected. Scientists estimate that three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. APHIS is uniquely positioned for this work because of its scientific expertise in animal health and animal diseases, including preparing for and responding to foreign animal disease outbreaks.

While experts are still learning about SARS-CoV-2 in animals, there is currently no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans. Based on the limited information available to date, the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people is low.

“APHIS is very well poised to be responding in this manner, we’re very passionate and dedicated to animal health and welfare,” said Dr. Jessica Siegal-Willott, Senior Veterinary Medical Officer, Zoological Species Specialist. “This study really hits on the One Health aspect of things.”

Groups across the human, animal and environmental health communities are increasingly working together when One Health questions arise. APHIS, alongside its One Health partners, is working together to harness the special skills, knowledge, specific perspectives and experiences to strengthen its understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and to enhance its ability to detect diseases sooner.

APHIS is currently conducting multiple projects under the American Rescue Plan Act aimed at understanding how the SARS-CoV-2 virus behaves in different animals, how it moves between animals and people and what we and our public health partners can do to interrupt the chain of transmission. APHIS’ American Rescue Plan strategic framework outlines how the agency is focusing its efforts to prevent, detect, investigate and respond to SARS-CoV-2 in animals, as well as other emerging diseases that could pose a threat to humans and animals.

As the organization expands and enhances its capacities to address the immediate threat of SARS-CoV-2, specialists at APHIS are building critical capacity to address future emerging threats and prevent or limit any future pandemics, to protect the health and welfare of the nation’s animals as it has for more than 50 years.

“This is all new and a little bit pioneering,” said Wire. “I'm just a small part of this whole undertaking, but anything we can contribute to mitigation efforts. It just feels great."

Veterinarians with USDA APHIS put finishing touches on biosecurity tool to prevent, minimize future pandemics

U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service veterinarians, Dr. Stephanie Wire, Project Lead, Zoo and Aquarium Serology Study; Dr. Jessica Siegal-Willott, Senior Veterinary Medical Officer, Zoological Species Specialist; and Dr. Steven Rekant, Public Health Veterinary Medical Officer, traveled to the West Coast recently to gather input for the Zoo and Aquarium Serology Study project funded under the American Rescue Plan Act, which includes a $300 million provision to conduct monitoring and surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 in susceptible animals. APHIS is currently conducting multiple projects under the American Rescue Plan Act aimed at understanding how SARS-CoV-2 behaves in different animals, how it moves between animals and people and what we and our public health partners can do to interrupt the chain of transmission. APHIS’ American Rescue Plan strategic framework outlines how the agency is focusing its efforts to prevent, detect, investigate and respond to SARS-CoV-2 in animals, as well as other emerging diseases that could pose a threat to humans, animals and the environment.


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