Positioned at the interface between human and animal health, in the spirit of “One Health”, ANSES's laboratories help provide effective, rapid responses to issues of applied research that can be implemented immediately. Thus, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, ANSES has been calling on its research teams, its expert knowledge of zoonoses and animal coronaviruses and its network of laboratories to improve knowledge related to SARS-CoV-2 and respond to questions that have arisen from this crisis. Discover the various projects undertaken by the Agency.
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Updated on 07/07/2020
What is ANSES doing?
Several ANSES laboratories have been working on animal coronaviruses for several years and have contributed to research work enhancing knowledge of SARS-CoV-2.
The joint research unit in virology (VIRO UMR), within the Maisons-Alfort Laboratory for Animal Health (ANSES – ENVa – INRAe), has been implementing several research projects on coronaviruses for many years.
- One research project is exploring the therapeutic potential of new antiviral drugs against coronaviruses in general. The study is focusing on a human coronavirus responsible for respiratory infections (HCoV-229E) as well as a feline coronavirus (feline infectious peritonitis virus) responsible for a fatal disease in cats. The most effective drugs are being tested in vivo in naturally infected cats for which no therapy is currently possible. These data will enable the therapeutically effective dose against a given coronavirus to be assessed. They are essential to ultimately be able to develop antiviral therapies for humans.
The VIRO UMR has been particularly involved in responding to the COVID-19 crisis ever since it began. For example, it has launched the following projects:
- A scientific study on the potential infection of pets, especially cats. Further to recent international publications describing a few cases of contamination in domestic carnivores, the VIRO UMR launched a scientific study on the possible transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to cats. Veterinary practitioners from Ile-de-France were invited to submit samples collected from suspect cats (cats in close contact with a person infected with COVID-19 or cats showing acute respiratory symptoms). The aim of this study was to improve the available knowledge on how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted and how it behaves in cats.
This scientific study led to detection of the first infected cat in France. This sick cat, which ended up recovering, had likely been contaminated by its owner. An article on the topic was recently accepted for the journal Transboundary and Emerging Diseases.
- The SARS-entry project, financed by the National Research Agency (ANR) and coordinated by the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAe), aims to develop medications that would block SARS-CoV-2 entry into cells.
- Work on potential central nervous system infection with SARS-CoV-2. A large number of patients with severe forms of COVID-19 have presented with neurological symptoms, suggesting that the virus may invade the central nervous system. The virus’s ability to infect these cells will be studied using central nervous system cells handled in a laboratory.
Within the Ploufragan-Plouzané-Niort Laboratory, the Virology, Immunology and Parasitology in Poultry & Rabbits Unit (VIPAC) has been working on avian coronaviruses for over 30 years. The Viral Genetics and Biosafety Unit (GVB) is home to the National Reference Laboratory for porcine epidemic diarrhoea (PED), which is caused by a porcine coronavirus. These two units have worked hard to acquire knowledge required to combat the pandemic, making it possible to:
- Characterise the genetic evolution of coronaviruses: these viruses have high evolutionary potential due to mutations and possible recombination, followed by selection. Since 2018, the Ploufragan-Plouzané-Niort Laboratory has been working on this topic by studying the genetic evolution of avian coronaviruses, with or without vaccination. The results have shown that the genetic evolution of an avian coronavirus is very rapid (detected from the first passage in non-vaccinated subjects) and differs between vaccinated and non-vaccinated subjects. These results are shedding light on the evolution of coronaviruses in the presence of vaccine immunity.
- Identify coronavirus inactivation treatments for surgical face masks: the Ploufragan Laboratory – in collaboration with Grenoble University Hospital, the French defence procurement agency (DGA), Tours Hospital and various private partners, and through access to the facilities of the Dupuy de Lôme Research Institute (University of Southern Brittany), a partner of ANSES within the AgriFood Transition Carnot Institute – is currently assessing the efficacy of various virucidal treatments applicable to respiratory masks, using two animal coronavirus models (avian infectious bronchitis virus and porcine epidemic diarrhoea virus). The goal of this work is to help identify safe solutions that can be implemented by professionals on the one hand and by private individuals on the other, to sanitise their masks and make them fit for reuse.
- Develop a new specific serological test for European turkey coronavirus: conducted in partnership with the EPISABE Unit and the CTPA ZOOPOLE Développement centre of expertise, this project is receiving financial support from the AgriFood Transition Carnot Institute. Ultimately, this knowledge may be mobilised for the development of tests to detect other coronaviruses.
- Study the persistence of coronaviruses in coastal waters: as part of the ANR's AAPRA-COVID-19 and in collaboration with the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer), a project has been submitted to study the survival and persistence of coronaviruses in coastal waters as well as their bioaccumulation in molluscs. Porcine coronaviruses will be used as models to replace the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus for the preliminary studies.
- Conduct diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2: as public veterinary research laboratories, the virology units on the Ploufragan site have been called on by the Brittany Regional Health Agency to build SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic capacities in Brittany. If a laboratory is solicited, it will be able to perform up to 360 RT-PCR analyses per day. This mobilisation of veterinary laboratories to control the COVID-19 pandemic supports the “One Health” initiative to focus efforts on a single health concept combining veterinary and human health.
The Nancy, Lyon, Ploufragan and Maisons-Alfort Laboratories have responded to various calls for projects, in collaboration with hospital, INRAe and veterinary school research teams, to develop animal models for ferrets and hamsters with the aims of testing new therapeutic approaches and investigating host-pathogen relationships. The results obtained with ferret models in Nancy and hamster models in Lyon are highly relevant and complementary. The effects in ferrets resemble those observed in humans, especially in the upper airways, with clinical effects visible seven to 10 days post-inoculation. This animal model is also advantageous in that samples such as nasal washing fluids can be collected without having to sacrifice the animals; moreover, it enables viral loads to be monitored over time. Conversely, the hamster model shows very rapid and strong signs of lung damage, from two days post-inoculation. This model is not as conducive as the ferret model to sampling without sacrificing; however, it is an excellent model that is easy to implement using short protocols (lasting around one week) to analyse candidate drugs having a possible therapeutic effect on SARS-CoV-2. The validation of these animal models has led the Nancy and Lyon Laboratories to submit several requests and projects to better understand the pathogenesis of COVID-19 and test therapeutic compounds and vaccines in collaboration with numerous institutes.
The Nancy, Ploufragan and Maisons-Alfort Laboratories are also working together to study under what conditions and for what reasons coronaviruses may cross the species barrier and thus jump from one animal species to another. This study will help them better prepare for the emergence of new coronaviruses.
Lastly, the Agency's work as part of the “One Health” project – based on the three pillars of human, animal and environmental health – and its involvement in the scientific management of the “One Health” field of major interest (DIM) have sustained dynamic research into coronaviruses in domestic carnivores and supported new anti-coronavirus therapeutic approaches. They have also helped raise €1 million to support research during this crisis.