Real veterinarians gave a tiger a Covid-19 test

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Nadia had a cough. A dry cough, to be precise, and it wasn’t just her. The 4-year-old Malaysian tiger lives in an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo with his sister, Azul, who also started coughing in late March. In total, seven of the zoo’s big cats appeared sick, two Amur tigers and three African lions in addition to Nadia and Azul. They neglected their meals. They whistled. And they worried their guards. Fears about the spread of the coronavirus had led to the zoo closing its doors to the public from mid-March, but essential staff remained to care for the animals. They wanted to find the source of Nadia’s discomfort.“Nadia was not moving and was getting a little worse, so we anesthetized her to treat her,” said Bronx zoo veterinarian Paul Calle. “We did x-rays and ultrasounds. We did blood tests. We have performed many tests, panels for normal infectious diseases of domestic cats. Although the Covid-19 pandemic hit humans living in the areas around the zoo hard, it was not originally supposed to be the likely culprit. After all, no animal in the United States has been known to get the disease. It was not even clear that a tiger could contract it. But with so many cases in town, the team decided to test SARS-Cov-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, just to be sure.

Within days, Nadia had tested positive, making it one of the first animals in North America to do so. The news that a New York tiger had caught the coronavirus was catchy. Who the hell knew a tiger to get tested so quickly?

Although New York has the highest number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the world, it also lacks testing, and most people with symptoms live in uncertainty. Patients who do not require immediate hospitalization were encouraged to stay at home, assuming they were infected and to wait. It’s a frustrating and scary experience. Thus, the news that a tiger could definitively and quickly get a test provoked outrage, while the care and attention shown to an animal contrasted so sharply with the neglect that so many New Yorkers felt.

The diagnostic veterinarians involved quickly pointed out that the tests for the tiger were developed specifically in their laboratories for use on animals, so Nadia did not receive a test for humans. And although this is an unexpected development, the tiger infection is relevant to scientists trying to understand Covid-19. “From the start, we know it’s a disease that started in animals and has spread to people,” says Casey Barton Behravesh, director of the One Health office for the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention Centers. diseases. and zoonotic infectious diseases. “It will be important for people working on human and animal health issues to exchange information. “

Although the exact origins of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 are still unknown, it is believed to have originated from bats and then jumped to humans via a Chinese market specializing in fish and meat, including live animals. It is at its most basic level a disease that requires the understanding of animal and human health specialists. Testing a tiger may seem like a bizarre detour, but it is intimately linked to efforts to find out how Covid-19 affects humans as well as animals. This is especially true because the working theory at the Bronx Zoo is that a zoo keeper may have accidentally infected Nadia. While a few dogs in Hong Kong, a cat in Hong Kong and a cat in Belgium have tested positive for Covid-19 after human exposure, it is not at all clear how easy or common it is for humans to spread the infection. back to the animal world, or what it might mean.

Because the well-being of the tiger is now linked to a public health crisis, it is planned to seek contacts on Nadia. “The New York City health department is actively investigating the tiger situation,” says Barton Behravesh.

“The health department will investigate. At the moment, it seems to be a human-to-cat transmission, but how it happened is something we still have to learn, “said Patrick Gallahue, press secretary for the Ministry of Health. To do this, adds Gallahue, the department will interview zoo staff to find out the level of contact between people and animals, and will try to determine when these contacts took place. Like so much about this pandemic, this is an unprecedented investigation.

“It is a disease that no one knows about. No one has spent their life studying this. There are no laboratories dedicated solely to this disease. We all need to work together and collaborate across states, countries and specialties to be able to get the answers everyone needs to effectively and efficiently fight this virus, “said Sam Sander, the wildlife veterinarian who tested the virus. Nadia’s sample at the University of Illinois veterinary diagnostic laboratory. “There are also opportunities for vaccine development, for additional testing, to be more specific about how this virus replicates and when it mutates. “

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Nadia has tested positive for Covid-19 three times.

After she was peacefully eliminated, the Bronx Zoo took samples from her nasal cavity, from the back of her throat and from her windpipe. The samples were then sent in duplicate to Cornell University and the University of Illinois veterinary laboratories, where they were immediately processed.

“We used a molecular test similar to the human test,” said 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 of people and animals, he replied that it could in theory, but “politics don’t allow us to test humans.”) So far , in addition to Nadia, Wang’s laboratory also tested a gorilla, a chimpanzee, a cat, a dog and an armadillo. “But we only got one positive from the tiger,” he says.

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