CANYON, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — West Texas A&M University announced that researchers from the Texas A&M School of Veterinary & Biomedical Sciences’ (VMBS) Veterinary Education, Research & Outreach (VERO) program are set to join an international team in studying how coronaviruses spread through humans and cattle.
Officials with WT detailed that the team, consisting of researchers from the US, UK, and Canada, received $3.5 million from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The researchers will evaluate the collection of microbes living in or on the body and dissect if the microbiome has an impact on the transmission process.
Officials added that cattle will be used as a model for viral transmission during group “commingling events,” meaning “when unfamiliar animals or people come together in a defined space and time with intensive and sustained contact.” Commingling, according to officials, can cause increased disease transmission which can occur when humans gather in groups including large group events, air travel, incarceration and classroom settings. In the case of animals, commingling can often lower an animal’s ability to fight disease while the body is being exposed to more pathogens during livestock production.
“It’s more and more the nature of our society that we have these types of commingling events, through travel, socialization, and the general nature of day-to-day interactions,” said Dr. Paul Morley, VERO’s director of food animal research and one of the project’s co-principal investigators. “Being able to understand how viruses behave would help us apply preventive measures, including vaccination and antiviral treatment, for both humans and cattle.”
The research team, led by Dr. Noelle Noyes, associate professor in the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, will work to examine and understand why some animals and humans get infected or develop symptoms during commingling events while some do not during these events.
During the research process, Morley and Dr. Matthew Scott, an assistant professor of microbial energy and infectious disease, will gather three graduate students to assist in collecting samples from local beef and dairy cattle in order to track how bovine coronavirus, which does not have the ability to infect people, can spread between animals, according to officials.
Researchers will evaluate how the virus spreads during certain situations like how many cattle are being housed together and if they are moved by livestock trailers. In addition, the cattle’s immune systems and microbiomes will be measured to understand if the situational changes impacted whether cattle get infected or not.
“The Texas Panhandle is one of the greatest epicenters of cattle production in the United States,” Morley said. “We’re taking advantage of our great contacts in the cattle production industries, both beef and dairy, to look at coronavirus transmission in young calves during natural management circumstances.”
“We’ll be looking at virus shedding before, during, and after commingling events, as well as immune function, genes that get turned on or off, and changes in the microbiomes of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts,” Morley said.
“We hope to uncover the complex multi-level mechanisms that underlie viral transmission during intensive mixing of unfamiliar calves,” said Dr. Joseph Neary, principal investigator of the project’s U.K. activities. “These new insights will better inform calf husbandry practices to reduce infectious disease transmission risk, particularly where newly mixed calves have been sourced from multiple farms.”
Noyes further noted that research has been conducted on the importance of the microbiome as it pertains to individual health, however, an abundance of research has not been conducted on “how population-level microbiome dynamics may influence disease transmission” during commingling or emulated situations.
Officials added that the project, set to last through 2026, will also include scientists from Mississippi State University, the University of Liverpool and the University of Saskatchewan.
“This project is the idealization of what we’re trying to do at VERO, working with people around the world on a big project with big impact,” Morley said. “The impact on our graduate students is going to be tremendous; they’ll get to interact with this internationally renowned, extremely talented group of people. It’s a great opportunity for them in their graduate programs.”