For veterinarian Sabrina Estabrook-Russett, the COVID-19 pandemic is further proof that the medical world could use a paradigm shift – closer collaboration between veterinarians and doctors who treat humans.
Dr. Estabrook-Russett, who has worked on foreign veterinary projects involving white rhinos in South Africa and street dogs in Sri Lanka, is owner of Court Street Veterinary Hospital in Keene. She and veterinarian Michael Dutton joined The Exchange to discuss how the coronavirus has affected veterinary practices. Dr. Dutton is founder of Weare Animal Hospital and Exotic Bird Clinic and the Hopkinton Animal Hospital.
(For the full conversation, listen here. Excerpts here have been edited slightly for clarity).
“I think we've got a lot to offer in terms of research that is already underway, that's already being worked on, that could then be applied to human medicine," Estabrook-Russett said.
Veterinarians know a lot about animal-borne diseases, including those that jump from animals to humans. These are zoonotic diseases, such as avian and swine flu, as well as Ebola, HIV, and COVID-19. Estabrook-Russett wears protective gear when doing surgery on animals, though not as air-tight as the PPE used by health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.
Veterinarians sometimes use the equipment -- such as respirators and ventilators -- that was in high demand in COVID-19 units, and they have provided these to hospitals in need of them, she said.
“Veterinarians do a lot of the same work with intubation and managing patients on respirators and even triaging and taking vitals. I think it's not it's not inherently different, just because the feathers or the scales or the skin might be a bit different.”
According to Estabrook-Russett, COVID-19, which is widely believed to have originated in bats, may have its antidote in another animal: Llamas.
Llamas, she said, create certain antibodies that effectively neutralize the SARS coronavirus “That research was beginning to reach the publication stage when this pandemic broke,” she said.
“So they went back to the drawing table and tested these llama antibodies against this particular SARS-Cov-2 -- COVID-19 -- and found that they are producing active antibodies. So the application of llama cells towards human medicine is something that's showing a lot of promise. Things like that are very interesting and are going to have a wider global health application in upcoming years.”
Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to claim victims worldwide, with the U.S. death toll surpassing 100,000. "Much of the problem is that we don't know how this is going to play out because it's a novel virus. We don't have a playbook for every virus, " Dr. Dutton said, despite best efforts of the medical community. "We'll have an episode or more in the future," he said.
Dutton has become involved in One Health Initiative, a global effort to integrate human and veterinary medicine. Among its goals: thwarting zoonotic outbreaks. "There are a variety of international and national organizations that are collaborating on so many levels with the understanding that there is a whole ecosystem of animal health that links to human health and vice versa. We are all interconnected."