older man with a cat Normally, the Swedish National Veterinary Institute does not accept samples from humans, but during the corona pandemic it has been very busy helping the healthcare regions.

Veterinary medicine provides support during pandemic

Svenska 2021-05-10

Veterinary medicine and human medicine are usually considered to be “worlds apart”, but during the corona pandemic, these worlds have met. When a COVID test is analysed, it actually does not matter much whether the sample is from a human being or a cat.

Henrik Ericsson

When the corona pandemic wave was growing in March last year, the Swedish National Veterinary Institute (SVA) decided to offer the Swedish healthcare regions help with analysing COVID tests. To begin with, there was little interest, despite long waiting times at the other laboratories.

“There were some actors who wondered why we decided to get involved,” says Henrik Ericsson, Microbiology Department Manager at SVA.

At their laboratory, SVA carries out analyses using the same techniques as laboratories where samples from humans are tested, but not everybody knows this, establishes Henrik Eriksson. He thinks that the reason why the healthcare regions held back to begin with was that many do not know that SVA’s laboratory is able to analyse samples from humans. He also thinks that it was perceived as being a bit odd to send samples from humans to a veterinary medicine laboratory. Under normal circumstances, SVA does not accept human samples, but they were given permission by the Government to do so during the pandemic.

Had to take on extra personnel

Once the healthcare regions realised that SVA had both the competence and capacity to analyse COVID-19 tests, the laboratory became very busy.

“Several regions contacted us and wanted to enter into agreements,” says Henrik Ericsson.

At the peak, SVA was responsible for 7 per cent of Sweden’s total COVID-19 diagnostics. In total, the laboratory handled around one quarter of a million samples during the pandemic.

“We are set up to do large volumes, so it was no great problem, but we did have to take on extra personnel. Some researchers have had to wait a bit for their samples, but otherwise our day-to-day activities have chugged along as usual.”

Over-stretched human medical care

SVA is an emergency response public agency, and supporting other operations in emergencies is part of its mandate. Henrik Ericsson is happy to have been able to help meet society’s needs during the pandemic.

“I think that we were super quick to offer our help.”

Other actors within veterinary medicine have also offered various types of support to human healthcare during the pandemic. Some animal hospitals, for example, have lent medical equipment, such as respirators.

Letting personnel from veterinary medicine step in and relieve personnel within human medical care is not allowed, however, for more highly qualified tasks, which require personnel to be registered.

“Even if the medical care we provide within veterinary medicine is the same in many ways, it is impossible due to the rules,” says Henrik Eriksson.

“The expertise that exists within veterinary medicine has, on the other hand, been in demand within human medicine,” he adds, and tells us that SVA has temporarily lent one of its epidemiologists to the Public Health Agency of Sweden.

Unique collaboration during the pandemic

Ali Mirazimi

The virus scientist Ali Mirazimi describes the current collaboration between veterinary medicine and human medicine during the pandemic as unique. Besides his professorship at Karolinska Institutet, he works part-time at both SVA and the Public Health Agency of Sweden. In this way, he has one foot in veterinary medicine and one in human medicine, and this makes him unusual.

“In Sweden, veterinary medicine and human medicine are more or less separate worlds, although in fact the fields are closely related. For example, we do not have particularly close collaboration between veterinary virologists and human virologists. This is more common in some other countries, such as Germany,” he says.

The fact that COVID-19 spread from the animal world to humans has exposed the need for collaboration, he believes, but what effects the increased collaboration during the pandemic will have in the long term is difficult to prophesy. Right now, there is a lot of interest in researching COVID-19, both within veterinary medicine and human medicine, so perhaps we will see more research projects that cut across the fields in the future, he predicts.

In cases where researchers from veterinary medicine and human medicine work together, it is almost exclusively in certain specific subjects. Often, it relates precisely to diseases that are passed between humans and animals, he considers. But what he would really like to see is another type of more everyday collaboration.

“It should be possible to collaborate on a much broader front, and benefit from things like each other’s technical equipment and infrastructure, in the way that is actually happening now, during the pandemic.”

More opportunities for collaboration

In addition to analysing COVID-19 tests, SVA has also been supporting human healthcare through manufacturing testing kits for self-tests. Half a million testing sticks have been delivered. SVA has also tested different types of disinfectants for their ability to kill off COVID-19 pathogens, and more initiatives are in progress.

Soon, researchers working on developing COVID-19 vaccine will be able to conduct testing on animals at SVA’s animal building. At present, the animal building does not fulfil the security level required, but SVA is in the process of completing an environment that fulfils the criteria, to reduce the pressure on other animal buildings in Sweden.

This is an important investment, in Ali Mirazimi’s opinion.

He hopes that the collaboration between veterinary and human medicine will continue to develop in the tailwind of the pandemic, but he emphasises that this will not happen automatically.

“We should use the spark that has been lit now to build up a strong research environment, where researchers from veterinary and human medicine can meet, otherwise there is a great risk that we return to the old ways again. We humans have very short memories.”

He would like to see more arenas that gather together researchers from the various fields, but also more assignments and services that cut across veterinary and human medicine, in order to “bind together the two worlds”.

Learn from each other

Henrik Ericsson also hopes that the pandemic will be the start of a deeper collaboration between veterinary and human medicine.

“I think that we have built up good channels for collaboration now, and have good opportunities to benefit from each other,” he says.

He believes that people on both the veterinary and human side have learnt much from seeing each other’s methods and ways of working in the laboratory, and that people have more to learn from each other.

More in-depth collaboration in the future would also make matters easier if another pandemic was to emerge, he considers. Even if the collaboration has worked well during the corona pandemic, there is potential for improvement, he explains. This relates to practical challenges, for example, such as different laboratories’ IT systems not always being compatible.

“For the collaboration to work really well in the event of raised emergency levels, I think you need to have good collaboration also in normal times.”

Text: Charlie Olofsson
Photo: Pietro Schellino