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  • Dr. Liz Bales

Did Feline Scientists Find The Cure For COVID-19?

Did feline scientists find the cure for COVID-19? Maybe! COVID-19 in people and FIP in cats have common traits that might help us treat both diseases. Cat lovers, veterinarians, scientists, and now for everyone in the world concerned about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the search for answers has become paramount. Recent experimental studies have shown a possible cure for FIP, feline coronavirus. Researchers are now racing to see if the same drug that cured the study cats with FIP can reliable cure people with COVID-19.

There is no evidence, as of today, that cats or dogs can get sick from COVID-19 or that pets can spread COVID-19 to people. Please do not hold off on adoption or abandon your pet out of fear. COVID-19 is a disease in people and FIP is a disease in cats. The viruses come from the same family, but are not the same virus.

Let's start with a crash course in virology.

Scientists classify viruses into families based on common characteristics, such as their shape, how they replicate, who they infect and the type of disease they cause. The known Corona viruses are named for the spikes coming off of their surface that resemble a queen's crown.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is the pandemic that is sweeping the globe. A “novel virus” is extremely dangerous because we have never seen it before. That means that no one’s immune system has antibodies ready to fight off the virus. Additionally, scientists, epidemiologists, public health officials, and doctors have no historical data on how the virus has acted in the past to predict how it will act now - both in individuals and in populations. Therefore, scientists are collecting data as fast as they can during this crisis to try to get information to help us make decisions as best we can. That is all anyone can do.

As time passes and data is collected, we will be able to make better predictions and we will develop better tools to both fight viral spread, and to treat people who have the disease.

Viruses from the corona family affect many species, including dogs, cats and humans. They cause both GI and respiratory diseases in their hosts. There are many known corona viruses in this family that we can look at to see if there might be other similar characteristics to the novel coronavirus, also called SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19.

It’s important to pause here and reiterate that there is no evidence as of today that cats or dogs can get sick from COVID-19 or that they can spread COVID-19 to people. Please do not hold off on adoption or consider abandoning your pet out of fear.

Another virus in the corona virus family is Feline Coronavirus (FCoV). This feline specific virus is an enteric virus, easily and commonly transmitted between cats that live indoors together. Some cats show GI signs, like diarrhea, while most cats never show any signs at all. Infected cats, and most often kittens, shed the virus in their feces for a few weeks to a few months. The litter box in the household is the main source of infection.

It is concerning that cats do not acquire lifelong immunity to the virus. Cats can clear the virus and then become reinfected. Infected households with fewer than five cats will pass the infection around and eventually it spontaneously goes away. Larger cat populations may never clear the virus from the community.

There is no reliable vaccine to prevent or pharmaceutical available to treat feline coronavirus.

In a small percentage of infected cats, a second process takes place. Instead of the immune system eliminating the virus from the body, the virus mutates and then uses the body’s own immune system to work against itself. In these cases, the mutated virus causes the cat’s immune system to create pyogranulomatous tissue which clogs essential organs and makes them unable to do their job. This reaction is a disease called FIP, or Feline Infectious Peritonitis. While feline coronavirus is highly contagious, FIP is not contagious. FIP is caused within the body of the cat, where the virus mutates.

Until recently, FIP was a death sentence.

Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Niels Pedersen, DVM, PhD at The University of California, Davis has spent his career studying this deadly disease in cats and in 2018/2019 he reported amazing progress. FIP is now considered treatable and may be curable with new antiviral medications. The most promising medication, GS-441524 is still in the research stage.

GS-441524 is a nucleoside analog. In the study of FIP infected cats treated with GS-441524 a few cats died of unrelated causes, and all of the remaining cats were cured of FIP. GS-441524 is nearly identical to a drug called Remdesivir. Remdesivir is an antiviral created to treat Ebola, made by pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. This is both good and bad news. GS-441524 is cheaper to make than Remdesivir, but Gilead has tied up veterinary use of GS-441524 and Remdesivir, making them inaccessible to veterinarians.

With GS-441524 tied up, Pedersen worked with Kansas State University to create GC376, a protease inhibitor. In experimental trials, young kittens with newer infections could be cured after 12 weeks of treatment with twice daily injections of GC376. The medication was less successful in the neurologic form of the disease.

Although we can not get it legally, GS-441524 appears to be the cure for cats affected with FIP. Is it a cure for COVID-19? Researchers in human medicine think that is just might be.

Remdesivir is the drug that both the President and USDA commissioner Stephen Hahn mentioned on March 19, 2019 as a possible treatment for COVID-19. And, just this morning, UC Irvine announced that it will participate in a National Institutes of Health clinical trial to test Remdesivir as a potential therapy for COVID-19.

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