Dec. 14, 2020
By Jens Odegaard
The Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory’s main office is on the first floor of Magruder Hall, hidden away in the southwest corner with its entrance shaded by a pin oak.
It’s in the 1979-original part of the building and, other than updated equipment, is virtually unchanged in the ensuing decades. Part of Oregon State University’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, the OVDL, hidden though it may be, is the state’s scientific heartbeat for diagnostic and testing questions related to animal health and its relationship to human health.
Every year, more than 17,500 animal samples flow into the lab from the college’s teaching hospital, hundreds of veterinary practices across the state, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Portland Zoo, the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon, the state police and others. The laboratory diagnoses all disease conditions of animals ranging from cancer and aging conditions to forensic investigations to infectious agents.
“In regards to infectious agents, we can see things that occur in animals can also spread to humans or some human diseases that spread to animals,” said Dr. Mark Ackermann, a veterinary pathologist and the lab’s director.
He lists bacteria like E. coli*, Salmonella and Leptospira. These can show up in all kinds of animals including production animals. “We want healthy animals, whether it's a backyard flock of birds or it's a big dairy farm to make sure they're healthy so that their milk, and their food and their meat is healthy for humans also,” Ackermann said.
These bacteria can also show up in wild animals that humans come in contact with. “Marine mammals get leptospirosis from bacteria that's in the water, but people are in that water surfing too,” Ackermann said. “Or they're out in Newport by those sea lions crabbing or something like that.” Diagnosing this presence of the bacteria and the infection it causes allows public health advisories for humans to be communicated.
He also lists viruses like rabies, respiratory syncytial virus aka RSV and, yes, coronavirus. In a recent example, samples from mink suspected to have coronavirus at an Oregon farm were sent to the OVDL by Oregon Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian Dr. Ryan Scholz (D.V.M. ’11). The lab confirmed a diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 in the animals. SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 in humans. Illustrating the crossover between animal and human health, reports indicate that farm workers also had SARS-CoV-2.
It’s not only animal coronavirus samples that the OVDL is testing. To date the lab has also run tests on more than 122,000 human nasal swab samples from across Oregon, including all tests from Oregon State’s TRACE-COVID-19 public health surveillance project.
Large scale sample testing like this is part of the infrastructure of the OVDL and its activity in the broader National Animal Health Laboratory Network. As a member of the NAHLN, the OVDL is one of 60 university, state and federal animal health laboratories. This network is “part of a nationwide strategy that enhances the nation’s early detection of, response to, and recovery from animal health emergencies … and is capable of testing large numbers of samples for specific disease agents originating from food animals” according to the NAHLN website.
Even as the world continues to grapple with the current coronavirus pandemic, the OVDL is constantly tracking other potential threats as part of the NAHLN. “So right now in Europe, there's influenza in birds, and they're telling us to watch out for influenza because of the migratory bird patterns” said Ackermann. The OVDL is also tracking African swine fever that’s in Europe and Asia. “We have tests that we run routinely on those just to make sure if it comes in.” A potential spread of these viruses or other diseases in the United States could be catastrophic, according to Ackermann.
It’s never-ending work requiring constant vigilance and the ability to rapidly and accurately process the nearly 70 animal cases (not to mention all the human COVID-19 samples) coming into the lab every weekday. Ackermann and his 42 OVDL colleagues “crank it out soon as we get it,” he said. “We start processing it the next day — 24 hours and it’s out depending on the assay/test.”
They maintain the pace with strict attention to detail as they work under a microscope of their own. “It’s pretty heavily scrutinized, “Ackermann said. “Let's say we miss something, a bad disease that goes and kills a bunch of animals or a person is affected, we'd be in hot water pretty fast.”
Their work is key to minimizing pathogenic threats to animals and humans, yet they do it in outdated facilities. “Our operation is essential,” Ackermann said. “We're just right in the middle of everything and we're kind of working with 1970s-era facilities with the responsibility of 2021 biosecurity.” He dreams of the $50 to 60 million it would take to build a modern facility for these modern threats, but for now “we make it work.”
They make it work. Scientists on the front lines helping keep the rest of us, animals and humans alike, safe one sample at a time.
*Though italicized in scientific publications, the university uses AP Style which does not use any italics in publication.