The U.S. National Institutes of Health announced this week it is “deeply concerned about the impact of [COVID-19] on the ability of … institutions to support the well-being of animals and personnel during this public health emergency.” And indeed, many universities are currently grappling with the best way to care for the millions of mice, monkeys, and other research animals they care for across the country, in addition to protecting the health of their own employees.
Science chatted with the heads of two leading animal facilities—Eric Hutchinson, director of research animal resources at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and Peter Smith, associate director of Yale University’s Animal Resources Center—about how they are coping with quarantines, animal welfare, and worst-case scenarios.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Both of your universities have closed down many of their operations. How has this impacted your animal care facilities?
Eric Hutchinson: There have been no closures that would impact us so far. Our employees are all essential.
Peter Smith: The animal care staff are considered essential personnel and will continue to come to work and care for the animals as long as they are able to do so.
Q: How are you trying to limit the spread of the virus among your staff?
P.S.: At this time, we are asking our staff to stay home if they are ill, consult their physicians, and follow CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines regarding self-quarantine. Nonessential staff like administrative and accounting personnel are working from home. Essential staff onsite are to follow CDC guidelines. Almost all meetings have been moved to a virtual format.
We have taken measures to physically separate teams of veterinary staff. In some cases, we are asking staff to work alternating schedules in order to minimize the chance of losing our whole veterinary teams. Our husbandry, or animal care, staff—the ones who clean cages and feed the animals—is physically isolated by facility, as our animals are spread across 17 facilities on campus. If we lose a unit due to exposure and self-quarantine, then staff from other units can fill in.
Q: What happens if you begin to lose large numbers of staff, either to sickness or quarantines?
E.H.: Right now, it’s like a 4-week snow emergency. We haven’t lost anybody yet. Everyone’s mind immediately leaps to a massive depopulation [of employees], but I don’t think we would ever get there. In the worst-case scenario, we would go into food and water mode with the animals. Everything else would take a back seat. Most of our animals could go without their cages being cleaned for 14 days without violating any welfare guidelines. We’re also doing a lot of cross-training, so that no one person disappearing leaves us vulnerable.
P.S.: Losing a quarter of our staff would have minimal to no impact on the daily care of our animals, though it could delay some cleaning and sanitation, as well as elective veterinary procedures, such as teeth cleaning, vasectomies, and routine blood work. If we lost half of our staff, we could still do basic animal care, but we would have to limit our preventative care, and we would likely encourage researchers to curtail any rodent breeding. If we lost three-quarters of our staff, we would only be able to perform emergency care. We would do a daily health check on all species except mice, rats, and birds, all of which would still be looked after, but less frequently. The only veterinary care would be critical care to prevent severe pain and distress, and to prevent death, followed by treating chronic medical conditions requiring daily medications and minor traumas.
Our top priority is animal welfare, so if staff shortages begin to increase, our activities will be scaled back to keep essential animal care at the top of the list.
Q: On Monday, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claimed that universities were being ordered to purge animals that are not considered critical to experiments. Is anything like this happening at your institutions?
P.S.: No. We have not, nor can I envision a scenario in the context of this pandemic in which we would mandate euthanasia of research animals. But we trust that labs will scale back the breeding of experimental mice accordingly if their research needs are diminished.
E.H.: I will say categorically that no mice or any other animals have been euthanized in an effort to conserve resources.
Q: Do we have any evidence that COVID-19 can infect lab animals, or that the animals could pass it back to people?
E.H.: There were a few studies with SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and other related viruses that showed that marmosets, macaques, and even some strains of mice, ferrets, and cats, were susceptible. A study earlier this month showed that macaques could be infected; but that was with a big dose of the virus up the nose. I’m not aware of any natural route for people to transmit the virus to animals. The short answer is that we don’t know. The long answer is that we presume that most of our lab animal species could be susceptible.
Q: What extra precautions are you taking, just in case?
E.H.: The current situation doesn’t change how we handle any of our nonhuman primates. Monkeys are susceptible to a number of things we have; macaques, for example, can get respiratory infections from us, and we can get herpes B from them. So we always use masks and face shields when we interact with them. Mice can contract some viruses from us as well. Most of our mice are in microventilated cages and are handled in biosafety cabinets that filter viruses from the air. For any mice not in these environments, we would now wear a mask.
Q: Are you having problems getting equipment or supplies?
P.S.: In anticipation of supply shortages, our contingency plan includes the stocking of a 1-month reserve of essential supplies such as food, water, and bedding. Our only supply shortage so far is surgical masks and N95 respirators—face masks designed to protect against airborne pathogens. In this case, we have replaced them with alternate full face shields and PAPRs [powered air purifying respirators] in the nonhuman primate facilities.
E.H.: We have taken the precaution of stocking an extra month of food, but we don’t expect that supply chain to be disrupted. As long as we have gloves, masks, and food, we can keep operating.
Q: Will all of this slow scientific research?
P.S.: I suspect it will to a degree. There are currently ongoing, high-level discussions at the university to determine which areas of research are considered essential and are to continue, but undoubtedly some research will be scaled back.
E.H.: We’ve asked investigators to voluntarily delay experiments. If we have staffing issues, we would impose limitations on research. We couldn’t staff large animal operating room—that is, we couldn’t do procedures on anything larger than a mouse. And we would discourage any experiments that require a lot of resources, like daily or continual treatments. So far, I’ve been amazed at how responsive investigators have been. People are reading the news—they know what’s going on. Nobody wants to be in the middle of an experiment they’re going to have to stop.
*Correction, 23 March, 11:30 a.m.: This article originally identified Eric Hutchinson as the associate director of research animal resources at Johns Hopkins. He is in fact the director. We have updated the story.