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UCD Research - March 2021

Researchers play important role in combatting the pandemic

Researchers from the School of Veterinary Medicine have been playing their part in trying to combat the Covid-19 pandemic

In association with

Grace Mulcahy

Veterinary Microbiology and Parasitology,
University College Dublin

As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded across the world, funding agencies scrambled to provide ‘rapid-response’ funding mechanisms to support the research community in the effort to understand the biology of SARS-CoV-2, the epidemiology of infection, and to identify mechanisms and technologies to aid in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of infection. Ireland’s rapid-response funding came from a collaboration between Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Health Research Board, provided in two tranches throughout 2020. A broad swathe of the academic research community responded, with applications ranging from the social sciences, through medical interventions, epidemiology, public health, and basic biological sciences. Through a competitive international evaluation exercise, projects selected for funding began contributing to the national and international effort to combat the pandemic.   

The veterinary community responds

Researchers within the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine joined the call to action, resulting in a number of significant ongoing initiatives. Leading the charge on a number of these is Dr Nicola Fletcher, virologist, veterinarian, and recent appointee as lecturer/Ad Astra Fellow in the school. Nicola’s career has led her from a BSc. at the University of Limerick; through a PhD in neuropathology in the vet school; post-doctoral positions in UCD and the University of Birmingham; qualifying as a veterinary practitioner in UCD; working in research and diagnostics in the Animal and Plant Health Agency in the UK; and finally back to her current position. Her current Covid-19 _ related research projects include looking at the neurological impacts of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and she is also collaborating in projects investigating the use of wastewater in surveillance for levels of SARS-CoV-2 within communities, on the sourcing of scarce reagents for diagnosis, and several others. Nicola’s inputs are especially valuable given her access to the high-containment (CL3) laboratory in the school, and her expertise with working with live virus in this environment.

Figure 1:  Workplan for UPCOM – Understanding and Preventing Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Meat Processing Plants – Prepared for the Future. 

Quantifying and combatting the risk of SARS-COV-2 in meat-processing plants

One of the high-risk environments vulnerable to super-spreading events, demonstrated by events in Ireland and overseas, are meat processing plants. There are multiple reasons for this, including the requirements of the working environment, ventilation, noisy environments, and numbers of people per area. In recognition of the risks of amplification of infection, once introduced from the community in such environments, SFI has funded a rapid-response research project on ‘Understanding and Preventing Outbreaks of Covid-19 in Meat Processing Plants – Prepared for the Future (UPCOM)’.  The co-principal investigators on this project are Grace Mulcahy (School of Veterinary Medicine) and Seamus Fanning (School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science). Other veterinary involvement includes Donal Sammin, adjunct professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and head of laboratories, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; along with School investigators Gerald Barry, Nicola Fletcher, Nicola Walshe and Paul Whyte. In total, in addition to UCD, the project benefits from input from UCC, DCU and RCSI, and has links to a number of relevant public-sector agencies, Meat Industry Ireland and Food and Drink Ireland, as well as academic and industry collaborators in Germany.

UPCOM aims to consider this problem from a number of angles, ranging from quantifying the benefit of rapid antigen testing in meat-processing plants, through to understanding airborne transmission in these environments and its mitigation, operational factors contributing to risk, sequencing of virus isolated in plants to map spread at a molecular level, the potential of wastewater surveillance as an early-warning system, and survival of virus on biological and non-biological surfaces. Crucially, the project will also benefit from the inclusion of a team of data scientists from the SFI-funded data analytics centre at DCU. Led by Dr Andrew McCarren, this team will use machine learning to ensure that the maximum possible amount of information will be gained from each of the separate workstreams and integrated across them. The network of veterinary inspectors present across the plants have been directly or indirectly involved in controlling outbreaks in meat plants, and their expertise and reflections ‘from the frontline’ are invaluable.

The industrial partners on the project, under the aegis of Meat Industry Ireland and Food and Drink Ireland, are both essential to enabling the work to proceed, and its beneficiaries, as another workstream is concerned with relaying useful research information back to the industry in near real-time.  This is, therefore, a project which will directly contribute to the national, and international effort to overcome the pandemic.

Providing expert input and engaging communities

In compiling this overview of the contribution of veterinary researchers to the rapid-response effort, it is important to mention also that the veterinary research community has also contributed in other ways other than in funded research. In particular, staff members from the Centre for Veterinary Epidemiology and Risk Analysis (CVERA), led by Professor Simon More, have been involved in providing expertise to NPHET and its sub-groups, and many students and staff of the school have helped with contact tracing, and in training initiatives aimed at scaling up qPCR testing. Finally, another SFI-funded initiative, centred on science outreach and engagement, will involve scientists from the School, (Annetta Zintl and Gerald Barry) together with colleagues from the School of Public Health, Physiotherapy, and Sports Science; Munster Technological University; and staff from UCD’s Access and Lifelong Learning Office, in a co-creation exercise to involve members of disadvantaged communities, in asking questions about their lived experience of the pandemic, through a One Health lens.

Long-term contribution

Overall, researchers from a veterinary background have made, and continue to make, a significant contribution in the immediate, rapid response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Their ability to respond in this way reflects the broad scientific base of veterinary education, and the commonalities between human, animal and environmental health, as espoused by the One Health paradigm. Global action on One Health is needed more than ever before, its importance dramatically highlighted by the origin and evolution of the pandemic over the past year. Inevitably, the tragic consequences of global mortality and morbidity, will continue to shape the research landscape, the careers of health professionals, including veterinarians and veterinary scientists, and related education programmes, for decades to come. Veterinary research and veterinary researchers, in the broadest sense, have much to contribute to the many unanswered questions posed by the pandemic, including its origins, predicting and preventing the next one, and finding ways to better human, animal and ecosystem health.  They will not be found wanting.

In association with

Grace Mulcahy

Veterinary Microbiology and Parasitology,
University College Dublin