Cornell Feline Health Center

Supporting Cat Health with Information and Health Studies.

2020 Rapid Response

Rapid  Response  Funding: When Covid-19 struck, we took action

After the news that domestic cats, and even lions and tigers, could contract SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the Cornell Feline Health Center didn’t hesitate to award rapid response funding to support feline-focused research on this and other feline coronaviruses, such as that which causes feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). The funded projects aim to improve diagnosis, to understand how the virus spreads to and between cats, and to develop drugs that may treat FIP.

The Rapid Response Fund is part of the Cornell Feline Health Center’s (FHC) larger grant program, which awards more than $500,000 each year to Cornell University researchers investigating feline health issues. “This mechanism of funding allows us to circumvent the normal grant application process, which can take up to nine months to complete, and gets funds to researchers quickly. It’s something that makes us unique,” said FHC director Bruce Kornreich, D.V.M. ‘92, Ph.D. ‘05. “We’re only able to do this through the support of our generous donors.”

Dr. Diego Diel, director of the virology lab at Cornell’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center, is developing new assays to detect SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. One test directly detects the presence of the virus in tissue, while the other is a diagnostic test that identified when an animal has developed antibodies to the virus. His lab had the latter test up and running in August and they now offer it routinely. It was this test that helped confirm SARS-CoV-2 infections in the lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo. With support from the center, they reduced testing time from 96 hours to 24 hours. “This is one of the serological tests that can be applied not only to cats, but any animal species, without a species-specific reagent,” said Diel.

Patrick Carney, D.V.M. ‘06, is using one of Diel’s new diagnostic tests to screen cats for SARS-CoV-2 before they are spayed by Cornell veterinary students. The cats come from shelters across upstate New York, so the results will provide a sense of the prevalence of the virus in this region, and whether infected cats put veterinary personnel and owners at risk of infection. SARS-CoV-2 appears to cause mild symptoms in cats, but if it spreads between cats, it could have implications for both human and feline health. “This is the first step in understanding whether cats play a significant role or are innocent bystanders,” said Carney. At this point, there is no evidence that cats can transmit SARS-CoV-2 to people, but vigilance and continued research are important. The study also establishes spaying and neutering as a potential surveillance system for future pandemics. “You get a good picture of what’s happening within people’s homes and what might be happening within feral populations.”

With help from FHC’s Rapid Response Fund, Dr. Kenneth Simpson is working with Dr. Gary Whittaker’s group to test potential new drugs to treat FIP, a disease caused by a mutant form of a feline coronavirus that has many parallels to severe COVID-19 cases in humans. The novel drugs appear to block viral infection and tamp down inflammation, which is a source of tissue damage in both FIP and COVID-19. Simpson’s lab has already established that the drugs are safe in mice. “The idea now is to get a handle on how cats metabolize them because they’re such unique animals,” said Simpson. He hopes that the drugs will treat FIP in cats, but there’s potential that the compounds may also target SARS-CoV-2. “Clinically, I think there is a lot of potential overlap between COVID in people and FIP in cats,” said Whittaker. “It’s quite remarkable how similar they are.” Both COVID-19 and FIP result in vasculitis — inflammation of the blood vessels — and other unusual symptoms.

Currently, Whittaker is reaching out to veterinarians and physicians to encourage a “One Health” approach to treating both coronaviruses. With funding from Cornell, he is working with a veterinary practice on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, screening for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in samples obtained from feline patients there. Many of the owners of these cats work in healthcare fields and may therefore be at increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. The results of this study may shed light on how people can serve as sources of SARS-CoV-2 infection for their cats.