COVID-19 has taught the world a hard lesson. The consequences of a pandemic are severe, not only for our health, but also for our daily lives and the economy. How can we prevent outbreaks of new infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans? Researchers at Wageningen University & Research are working on testing methods to detect pathogens in animals easily and quickly. As a test case, they are examining the virus that causes avian influenza.
The Netherlands is a small and densely populated country with a large livestock farming sector. Our country has about 100 million chickens, 12 million pigs and 4 million cattle. With so much livestock, diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans – known as zoonoses – are always a risk. “For example, avian influenza is carried by migratory birds from Southeast Asia. Many avian influenza viruses have low pathogenicity – i.e. they cause few health problems – if they spread to chickens or turkeys. But sometimes the virus mutates into a highly contagious, highly pathogenic variant,” says researcher Peter Bonants. “If that happens, the virus will spread rapidly through a livestock farm and the animals will become critically ill or die. And in the worst case, variants emerge that are also pathogenic for humans. Consequently it is crucial to quickly determine whether an infectious disease is present in a population of animals and to identify the variant. Then the authorities can take measures to prevent the disease from spreading.”
New testing methods
WUR researchers are therefore working on new methods with which they can quickly detect infectious pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria, in animals. As a test case, they are using the avian influenza virus. One of the methods the researchers are working on shows whether antibodies against influenza viruses are present in the blood of livestock and wild animals. They are also developing a method that can identify the genetic material of the virus and show specific changes in this material. Bonants: “For example, this method can be used to identify highly contagious, highly pathogenic variants of avian influenza.”
According to Bonants, the new methods will be very quick and easy to use in the field. “We are using avian influenza as a test case to make sure that the entire “pipeline” of design principles and testing methods is operational. In this way we can help to prevent major disease outbreaks in the future.”
The researchers are also working on a method that detects viral RNA directly. “In order to study the genetic material of a virus, we first have to amplify a piece of the RNA. We do this using a fast method known as loop-mediated isothermal amplification,” explains Bonants. “In collaboration with the WUR spin-off Scope Biosciences, we are combining this method with CRISPR-Cas, which enables us to detect small differences in the virus. In this way we can, for example, determine whether it is a low-pathogenic or high-pathogenic variant of the avian influenza virus.”