The Real Reason Veterinarians Gave a Tiger a Covid-19 Test

Because the tiger’s well-being is now enmeshed with a public health crisis, there are plans to conduct contact-tracing on Nadia. “The New York City Health Department is actively investigating the tiger situation further,” Barton Behravesh says.

“The Health Department will investigate. Right now this appears to be human-to-cat transmission, however, how that transmission occurred is something we still need to learn,” Department of Health press secretary Patrick Gallahue confirms. To do that, Gallahue adds, the department will interview the zoo’s staff to find out the level of contact between people and animals, and try to determine when those contacts occurred. Like so much about this pandemic, it’s an unprecedented investigation.

“This is a disease nobody knows about. Nobody has spent their lives studying this. There aren’t labs dedicated just to this disease. We need to all work together and collaborate across states, across countries, across specialties to be able to get the answers that everyone needs to be able to fight this virus effectively and efficiently,” says Sam Sander, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. “There’s also opportunities for vaccine development, for additional testing, for getting more specific with how this virus replicates and when it mutates.”

 

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Nadia actually tested positive for Covid-19 three times.

After she was peacefully knocked out, the Bronx Zoo collected samples from her nasal cavity, the back of her throat, and her trachea. The samples were then sent in duplicate to Cornell University and the University of Illinois’ veterinary labs, where they were processed immediately.

“We used a similar molecular test as the human test,” says Leyi Wang, the veterinary virologist who created the test used on Nadia’s samples at the University of Illinois. (When asked if his test could work on samples from people as well as animals, he said it could in theory, but “policy does not allow us to test humans.”) So far, in addition to Nadia, Wang’s lab has also tested a gorilla, a chimpanzee, a cat, a dog, and an armadillo. “But we only had a positive from the tiger,” he says.

Once the results came back presumed positive, the lab sprang into action to get them independently confirmed. “Our director for the lab, Dr. [Richard] Fredrickson, actually drove the samples himself to Ames, Iowa, to get the confirmatory testing by the USDA’s National Veterinary Services Laboratories. He left here at 3 am,” Sander says. The national lab began working on the sample when it arrived later that morning, and the results were back by that same evening, April 4. By April 5, the news was public.

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As those headlines spread, many wondered why, with so many humans sick and wondering about their status, officials would opt to test a tiger. Others wondered something else: What does this mean for the coronavirus spreading to other animals? What does it mean for pets?

Veterinary diagnostic labs across the country are developing their own tests for Covid-19, and many use the same basic processes that human tests do. They tend to use a technique called RT-PCR (reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction) to analyze the samples and then look for genetic sequences that match the virus’s own genes. This was the method used to test Nadia’s samples and to confirm the testing at the NVSL. “The test is performed to try and identify specific gene targets,” USDA public affairs director Lyndsay Cole told WIRED by email, noting that the CDC provides gene targets for laboratories to use.

Tim Baszler, executive director of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab, didn’t work on Nadia’s samples, but his lab has created its own version of the test primarily aimed at pets. “We developed the test at the request of King County Public Health,” Baszler says. “They were uncertain about animals in multicare facilities for the aged when the pandemic was really hitting Seattle hard.” Baszler stressed that the actual procedure of determining whether an animal had a coronavirus wasn’t new. “What’s new about this is the disease.”

When people say “the coronavirus” nowadays, they are almost always referring to Covid-19, but there are countless coronaviruses that infect animals. Humans also get other coronaviruses: SARS, MERS, and even the common cold are all members of the coronavirus family. “Horses have coronaviruses, cattle have coronaviruses, swine have coronaviruses, chickens and turkeys have coronaviruses,” says Ann Hohenhaus, a staff doctor at New York’s Animal Medical Center. “They’re widely spread throughout the animal world.”

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