WSU Receives $1.5M to Track Zoonotic Viruses in Livestock

Jun 11, 2024

By Devin Rokyta

The Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) at Washington State University has been awarded a $1.5 million grant to identify and track respiratory pathogens in the Pacific Northwest with the potential to spread between humans and livestock. This includes the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1 that has recently jumped from birds into dairy cattle.

While considerable research has gone into zoonotic diseases — infections that spread between animals and humans — minimal attention has been directed toward small- and medium-sized ruminant hosts, including cows, goats and sheep. These species have been undersampled and a better understanding of virus transmission between animals and humans is needed, especially at events like county fairs where people and animals mix.

“These are species that have the potential to spread diseases to humans,” said Dr. Thomas Waltzek, a virologist at WADDL in the College of Veterinary Medicine who is leading the new project along with WADDL’s executive director, Dr. Kevin Snekvik. “It’s all about detecting these diseases quickly, determining if the viruses have pandemic potential and immediately taking corrective actions to hopefully prevent a pandemic.”

The project, which is being funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington Department of Health, allows WADDL to expand its ongoing surveillance of avian flu and other zoonotic diseases like SARS-CoV-2 as part of the Pathogen Genomics Centers of Excellence, a national network of labs dedicated to preparing for and responding to infectious disease threats.

WADDL joined the network in 2023 and began making infrastructure updates and adding positions, including those in its new next-generation sequencing (NGS) section created to quickly sequence genomes of infectious agents to track the spread of emerging diseases of potential risk to human and animal health. The larger mission of this national one health network is to quickly detect viruses of pandemic potential and use that information for corrective actions to be taken in prevention of the next pandemic.

“This funding has expanded WADDL’s capacity and exposed our growing NGS team to regional and national diagnosticians and researchers who have unquestionably helped us prepare for dealing with the current H5N1 outbreak and future such events,” Waltzek said.

Although WADDL and its partners have been tracking H5N1 for some time in domestic and wild birds, its jump into dairy cattle was unexpected. WADDL quickly confirmed the first H5N1 cases in dairy cattle farms in Idaho and sequenced the viral genomes to demonstrate that recently transported dairy cattle from Texas had brought the virus with them.

“The efforts of the WADDL NGS section members — including Becca Wolking, Brandi Torrevillas, Jillian Daigle, Marla Francis, and Dr. Azeza Falghoush — have been critical to WADDL’s ability to track H5N1 strains as they emerged in wildlife and livestock,” Waltzek said.

As of May 29, H5N1 has been detected in dairy herds in nine states. Two dairy farm workers have contracted the virus; however, the CDC says the risk to the public is low. While the disease is not causing cattle death, it is negatively affecting milk production in affected animals. Introduction of HPAI into dairy herds most likely occurred by exposure to wild birds that was followed by cow-to-cow spread.

H5N1 has already devastated the U.S. poultry industry and caused billions of dollars in losses. It has also had a huge impact on wildlife. WADDL has partnered with veterinarians and biologists who recently documented the spread of H5N1 from seabirds into harbor seals in Puget Sound, Washington.

“The number of wild birds dying, including raptors, is staggering,” Snekvik said. “And it’s not just birds, now it’s raccoons and skunks and seals. Luckily, it is not highly pathogenic for humans. We hope a mutation doesn’t occur that leads to something like that, but we need to be closely monitoring the situation.”

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