Why A One Health Approach Is Vital In Pandemic Management


November 03, 2021

When COVID-19 started making headlines in early 2020, public health officials were consumed with human-to-human transmission of a novel coronavirus, and many were quick to dismiss concerns that the virus also posed a risk to livestock, pets and wildlife. But ruling out the potential for animals to contract and transmit emerging diseases before the research has been done could have a disastrous impact on current and future health issues.

Dr. Scott Weese is a veterinary internal medicine specialist, the chief of infection control at University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), and director of the Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses. He is also a member of the Global 1 Health Network. Weese advocates for a “One Health” approach that would see more collaboration between human, animal and environmental experts and lead to a more thorough understanding of emerging diseases.

“COVID-19 is primarily a human disease, but with any new disease, we have to figure out what species are susceptible, and how to limit exposure to those species,” Weese says. “One Health asks, ‘what if this could spread to squirrels or raccoons or birds?’ Then it would be a different risk, and our ability to contain it would be different.”

With One Health, Weese says experts can learn important information about how human, animal and environmental health are connected. For example, an environmental product such as wastewater is a window to environmental exposure, wildlife exposure and impact on domestic animals.

In 2003, during SARS-1, cats and ferrets were affected by the virus. In COVID-19, mink have presented a problem, and there have been sporadic reports of positive cases in other species around the world. Involving One Health colleagues early in the process would allow for less stress on an already taxed human health system.

“We’d be naïve to think this won’t happen again, and the global community needs to get better at making One Health the default approach, as opposed to bringing it in as needed,” says Weese. “

Human risk to pets

To gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 affects animals, Weese is working with Pathobiology colleague Dr. Dorothee Bienzle on a series of studies. Their goal, to examine what risk COVID-19 poses to pets, and why some animals become infected while others do not.

In one study, the researchers included cats, dogs and ferrets in households where at least one human has symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or has had a positive test result.

Initial findings suggest people with COVID-19 frequently pass the illness to their pets, and that cats that sleep on their owners' beds are at particular risk. 

The research has received extensive media coverage, including in Scientific American, BBC News, The Guardian, ITV News, NBC News and the Huffington Post.

In another study, the team broadened their work to recruit Canadian veterinary clinic staff who have had COVID-19 themselves so they could learn more about the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from people to pets. The researchers are also looking at cats in shelters, to understand different steps in the process where the virus could move.

“If we start seeing the virus in domestic cats that’s one thing, but if we start seeing it in stray or community cats, we need to start thinking about reservoirs, or bridge to wildlife,” Weese says.

Pandemic guidance for veterinary clinics

During the pandemic, Weese also has been instrumental in advising clinics how to safely reopen practices while reducing and assessing risk. His team has produced several updated versions of the guidelines as information evolves, in partnership with the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA). The document has been translated and used by other groups around the world.

Weese says he consults with clinic staff on a daily basis, often in a troubleshooting capacity. He also participated in monthly national town hall webinars through the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and teaches webinars for other groups looking for guidance on containment and other practices.

“Most clinics are doing well,” he says. “They have adapted and discovered other ways to deliver veterinary medicine through curbside drop-off, telemedicine, and reducing contact between owners and among staff. Most have done a good job, and they take risk seriously.”

His team is well known internationally for its work on infection control, and his popular Worms and Germs Blog gets more than one million hits per year. The clinic resource can be found on the Worms and Germs blog. 

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