Livestock research evolves under COVID-19

University of Guelph research in livestock is an essential service

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Livestock research is moving quickly to adjust to the COVID-19 reality. The disease also means new research opportunities at the University of Guelph.

Most active livestock research at the university falls into three categories: shut down, scale back, or continuing/new, said Ontario Agriculture College Dean Dr. Rene Van Acker.

“We aren’t closed as we fall into the essential services category so we are allowed to be doing things, but we aren’t always able. Our faculty are at the base of our research programs and they are considering everything through a lens of safety,” says Van Acker.

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Why it matters: While human protection is the main concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, research into livestock health is critical and remains an essential service.

The university has been in contact with its research project partners for accommodations for postponements, deferment and delays, including industry organizations, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

Any new research where funding has recently been confirmed, but work has yet to begin, is being evaluated through a lens of what, if anything, can happen safely this year. Planning for the new swine research facility will continue, but construction will not begin until restrictions are lifted.

At the research station level, the university has taken steps to protect worker safety, such as stricter hygiene rules and fewer people working together while livestock, poultry and fish continue to be looked after.

“Guelph has taken a different approach compared to some other universities, with a measured response to the risk instead of a complete shut down. We decided to focus on scaling back and focus on critical and time-sensitive work,” says Dr. Shayan Sharif, associate dean of research and graduate studies at the Ontario Veterinary College.

“Students, faculty, and staff are still actively engaged in research; there has been scale back and some modifications, but much can be done and continued at home and we’ve been doing this over the last month,” he adds.

In fact, new work related to COVID-19 is underway on various fronts at the University of Guelph, including vaccine development, improved diagnostics, better models for tracking virus spread and transmission, and evaluating impacts of the virus on companion animals and livestock.

Infectious disease experts Dr. Scott Weese and Dr. Dorothee Bienzle, for example, have acted as lead experts in helping understand if animals can play a role in virus transmission. So far, research indicates the answer is “not likely”.

Dr. Amy Greer, who holds a Canada Research Chair in population disease modelling, has been a leading resource for the Public Health Agency of Canada on modelling potential spread of COVID-19. And Dr. Sarah Wootton, Dr. Byram Bridle and Dr. Leo Susta are working on a collaborative project developing different vaccine platforms against COVID-19.

Sharif previously worked with Dr. Rozita Dara of the School of Computer Science on an artificial intelligence project using Twitter to detect Avian Influenza; that same platform will now be used to look at the spread of COVID-19. He’s also hoping to begin research into how chickens can be used as a vehicle to produce antibodies against the virus.

“We are learning a lot of things around how we can do things differently and more efficiently,” says Van Acker. “Out of crises can come innovation and positive things.”

Sharif is hopeful that the current pandemic will put greater emphasis on the need for a global response system to identify new emerging disease threats, similar to what’s currently in place to monitor and warn against natural disasters like tsunamis. The next pandemic, he says, could emerge from anywhere.

From a livestock perspective, every significant disease crisis in Canada has led to significant review and investment, and OVC dean Dr. Jeffrey Wichtel believes looking ahead to those future threats is imperative.

“We’ve been reminded of how fragile our food system is here in Canada and how our foods get produced and consumed in very different locations, sometimes requiring transportation across international borders more than once,” Wichtel says. “Although COVID-19 is a great wake-up call, the next pandemic could be far more damaging especially if our domestic livestock serve as reservoirs.”

To that end, he says agriculture and veterinary college deans have started discussions about what would be needed in terms of surge capacity, testing, personnel and lab infrastructure on the livestock side should a future pandemic have a real base in the animal population.

University of Guelph is already working toward more integrated research involving humans, animals and the environment as part of its One Health approach, which was already initiated before the pandemic but is now gaining greater focus.

“Given the loss of human life and economic disruption, it will be easy for the livestock sectors to be lost in the discussion. It’s easy for us to be drowned out and for all resources to go to human health and infrastructure, and while that’s important, livestock, crops and food systems shouldn’t be ignored,” Wichtel says, adding that includes maintaining surveillance and research programs into major livestock disease threats like African Swine Fever.

“Our food system is so interconnected, intricate and fragile and we must do a better job of protecting it,” says Sharif. “Our function at Guelph is to protect and advocate and provide science-based evidence for future solutions and plans to ensure the integrity of food system.”

This was first written for the Livestock Research Innovation Corp.

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