OSU Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory provides tool to prepare for disease outbreaks

Pictured is the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory that is located on the Southwest side of the Oregon State University campus. The OVDL specializes in identifying animal-borne diseases and surveys wildlife and domestic livestock for diseases that could be potentially harmful to humans.

Kirsten Steinke, Science Beat Reporter

Oregon State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is a testing facility that provides diagnostic services to identify animal-borne diseases, including viruses such as the one responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The predominant theory for the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that triggered COVID-19, is that it began in bats and spread to humans when an infected bat came into close contact with a person.

According to Dr. Kurt Williams, incoming director of the OVDL, as societies encroach on the habitats of animals throughout the world, people are more likely to come into contact with different species of pathogens that might find humans to be suitable hosts for infection.

“In the course of human history, devastating diseases have frequently arisen from our relationship with other animals,” Williams said. According to Williams, a common example of an animal-borne illness that can infect humans is influenza. This family of viruses first spread to humans through contact with animals. Most flu viruses that infect humans originated in birds, through the avian flu, but they have been found to originate in other animals as well, such as pigs, through the swine flu.

“The crossover [between humans and animals] is more than a lot of people might realize,” said Dawn Dirks, lab supervisor for molecular diagnostics at OVDL. 

According to Dirks, OVDL does a significant amount of surveillance for diseases in wildlife and domestic livestock. She emphasized the importance of lab facilities like OVDL for tracking the emergence of potentially harmful zoonotic, or animal-borne, diseases. 

Dr. Justin Sanders, section head of molecular diagnostics at OVDL, said the lab is currently providing testing for animals that may be infected with COVID-19.

OVDL also assisted in providing COVID-19 testing for people when there was lower testing availability throughout the community, Sanders said.

OVDL is a partner of One Health, a collaborative approach by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that aims to better understand the interconnectedness between people, animals, plants and their environment. 

According to the CDC, understanding the biological relationships between animals and humans is critical for preventing and monitoring diseases. 

“[One Health] is a public health concept and the recognition that veterinary medicine can really help recognize a lot of these potential outbreak situations and also assist when these outbreaks occur,” Sanders said.

Viruses are the most common culprits for zoonotic diseases, according to Williams. Viruses are made up of a nucleic acid package surrounded by a lipid envelope obtained from its host cell. 

“Their aim is to infect cells,” Williams said. “They can’t even replicate themselves without a host cell.”

As viruses infect different hosts, they replicate so that they can survive, Williams said. This process leads to random mutations within their genetic code that can cause different strains of a virus to emerge. The more hosts a virus is able to infect, the higher the probability is for new viral strains. 

Sanders said animals can serve as hosts for viruses and that it is important from a public health standpoint to monitor their spread among a population. 

According to Williams, domesticated and agricultural animals are more likely to be sources of infection for humans because of their integration into societies. 

“[OVDL] does a significant amount of surveillance testing in wildlife and domestic livestock,” Dirks said. “Some of the pathogens we test could infect humans.” 

Dirks emphasized the importance of molecular diagnostic facilities like OVDL for monitoring emerging or mutating zoonotic pathogens that pose a risk to humans. The testing done at OVDL works to identify pathogens and mitigate their effects among animals, humans and the environment. 

According to Dirks, facilities like OVDL are critical for preventing the spread of infectious diseases that, if left unchecked, could potentially lead to the next pandemic. 

“The work we do [at OVDL] touches on companion animal care, ensuring protection of our food supply, protecting the health of our wildlife and in many cases, helping to diagnose and contain illnesses that directly impact human health,” Dirks said.

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