Q&A with Dr. Cathy Knupp, Executive Vice President, and President, Research & Development, and Dr. Mahesh Kumar, Senior Vice President, Global Biologics, at Zoetis

Q: As the head of R&D at the leading animal health company, what do you think about the recent attention on and interest in zoonotic diseases and their relationship to COVID-19?

Dr. Knupp: While its exact beginning may never be understood, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, is widely believed to have originated in bats before making its way to people. This makes COVID-19 a zoonotic disease, one that can be shared between animals and people. The idea of “one health” – that animal health is linked to public health – has never been more compelling than it is today as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the world with tragic rates of human infection, serious illness and death, along with economic devastation.

Zoonotic diseases are not new, but COVID-19, with its high rate of transmission around the world, has glaringly spotlighted the need to be ready with solutions that can help prevent, detect and treat disease in human and animal health.

Q: Why is it important that animal health work together with human health to prevent and fight future pandemics?

Dr. Knupp: According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), 60% of infectious diseases in the world are zoonotic and at least 75% of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin. For more than 30 years I have been working in human and animal health research, and I firmly believe in a One Health approach to tackling zoonotic diseases and helping to protect the world. As the head of R&D for Zoetis, I’m proud that we have played an important role in discovering and developing solutions for other zoonotic diseases that threaten human health.

In our experience at Zoetis, we have learned three lessons in animal health that can be applied to future pandemics as we seek to avoid another COVID-19:

    1. Set up surveillance systems to identify disease threats early.
    2. Be able to quickly mobilize diverse resources across R&D, supply chains, and manufacturing capacity.
    3. Act decisively, making investments and enacting processes even in the face of uncertainty. 

Q: How does Zoetis stay abreast of emerging infectious diseases and respond to them?

Dr. Knupp: It’s critical to have plans and processes in place so that when a disease threat is identified, capabilities in biosecure vaccine development, academic and regulatory partnerships can be mobilized quickly. Zoetis organizes responses to outbreaks of infectious diseases through the company’s Center for Transboundary and Emerging Diseases (CTED). This virtual Center brings together expertise in vaccine and diagnostic development, strong alliances with academic and government centers of excellence, understanding of the regulatory approval process, and activating a flexible manufacturing capacity. Our diverse manufacturing network and capabilities in 27 different sites around the world is an important aspect of our readiness plans because we can rapidly respond when a vaccine is needed.

Q: How does Zoetis monitor for emerging infectious diseases?

Dr. Kumar: Surveillance is key. Through the CTED, our scientists work closely with leaders from government, health organizations, and the veterinary and livestock agricultural communities to identify infectious disease threats early. We are watching approximately 200 diseases identified by the World Health Organization as zoonotic, including Avian Influenza, Rabies, Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, and SARS-CoV-2. We strive to be first to know when a zoonotic disease threatens to devastate livestock herds and the health of pets, and to be fast to market with a vaccine, diagnostic test or treatment.

Q: How has decisive action paid off for Zoetis?

Dr. Kumar: Our mission through CTED is to be first to know and fast to market, which we’ve demonstrated in developing numerous vaccines to help protect animals from emerging and devastating diseases, including a new strain of canine influenza virus and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus in pigs. As an example of a zoonotic disease, we developed a vaccine to protect horses against Hendra virus in Australia. This virus not only threatens the lives of horses, but also people who come in contact with infected horses.

Decisive action is required to mobilize resources, make investments and put processes into motion quickly. And again, manufacturing capacity and flexibility globally is critical for us being able to respond quickly with a solution wherever it is needed in the world.

When SARS-CoV-2 was identified, our scientists collaborated with animal health authorities to determine whether domestic animals, including pets and livestock, might be a reservoir for human infection. We rapidly developed a diagnostic test that could be used to detect SARS-CoV-2 in animals in case mass testing was needed for animals. While several cats and dogs in a few countries have been confirmed to be infected, thankfully at this moment, there’s no evidence pets or livestock are a significant source of COVID-19 infection to humans. If that changes, Zoetis is prepared to rapidly develop a vaccine for domestic animals. We have all the elements in place to deploy resources and respond as needed. Because emerging infectious diseases, by definition, have not been seen before, we must accept the risk of developing a solution that might end up not being needed or widely used.  

Q: Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, health authorities and scientists have reminded us that infectious, zoonotic diseases like these are happening with increasing frequency. Is that true, and can we ever be fully prepared?

Dr. Knupp: As scientists and pharmaceutical companies have raced to develop and begin testing human health vaccines against COVID-19, it’s been heartening to see how much progress can be achieved when all stakeholders immediately contribute – whether scientifically, monetarily or both – to develop solutions. Infectious, zoonotic diseases are being identified with increasing frequency due to the encroachment of suburban communities into woodlands, climate change, and increasing global travel and trade. We must remain vigilant and ready. Zoetis and the animal health industry have extensive experience and capabilities that we can bring to bear on emerging infectious and zoonotic diseases – issues that will stay with us on a global scale for the future.