World Veterinary Day

World Veterinary Day

Veterinary Care in the age of COVID: One year later

On this World Veterinary Day, we look back on the past year in regards to COVID-19 and how the veterinary community rallied together to put people and their pets first.

Our video interview guest is Dr. Bob Cook, a world-renowned expert in Zoo Animal and Wildlife Medicine. Dr. Cook previously served as the head of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which oversaw the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, and the NY Aquarium. He was part of the team that identified some of the nastiest diseases on the planet (e.g. West Nile Virus, Ebola, etc.) Dr. Cook has extensive expertise in wild animal markets and the transmission of zoonotic diseases from animals to people.

We kicked off our Covid-19 webinar series one year ago and today, we are honored to reflect on this topic. Dr. Cook and Dr. Post discuss lessons learned, the role of veterinarians in society as it relates to zoonotic diseases and the general public's view of our profession.

Dr. Gerry Post:

I am thrilled to be interviewing you for World Veterinary Day, especially amid COVID and what it has done to our community and the veterinary community as a whole. How do you think the veterinary community as a whole, specifically in the United States, handled the COVID pandemic and why?

Dr. Bob Cook:

Well, I certainly can't speak for the entire profession, but there are parts that I am connected with. The first is the wildlife health community, both through zoos and aquariums and in free ranging wildlife and pathogen discovery. In my former life, I had a lot of connections and did a lot of work in that area. And I can tell you, none of it was surprising to me. The level of commitment, the dedication, the ability to adapt to change were all things that I've come to know and expect from this community.

And despite some of the political wins that undermined funding at some points just prior to the pandemic for some of the wildlife surveillance work around the world and some of the other politics that confuse the issues around the emergence of the virus from the wildlife markets and whether that was true and how to do the good science to get at it, these professionals maintained their composure. They did the work, they continue to do the work in a quiet and very responsible way. So like I said, not surprising, but impressive.

And then my other connection is another hat that I wear. I'm the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery. And in that role, this is a peer reviewed publication for the Association Of Avian Veterinarians. And we have about 1500 or 1600 members. It's peer reviewed publications on bird research of different sorts, all for the betterment of birds and their health care. But we did some non-peer review interviews with our members from around the world. It was a series of three over the course of the last year plus. One was academics and institutional veterinarians who worked with birds, but also many other animals and similarly practitioners and veterinary students, asking them all similar sorts of questions about how they were coping, where they thought their responsibilities were, and how they cared for their animals.

It was really impressive. Again, not terribly surprising because these people are very dedicated, but they came up with novel ways of working within the limitations of the COVID pandemic and never lost sight of what was important, which was, for them, the care of animals and also the people who own those animals. It's just awe inspiring. And why would they be this way? Well, I think because it's a calling for many of us. It's rather tripe, but it wasn't for the money per se, right? It was because these values were important to us. And so when a crisis strikes, veterinarians typically figure out a way. They do what needs to get done. And I was really impressed by what I read, what I heard, what I saw.

Dr. Gerry Post:

I would agree. I think your term awe inspiring is absolutely accurate. Balancing the needs of our patients, the pets, balancing the needs of our clients, the pet owners, at the same time, balancing the safety of our coworkers and employees and fellow workers often were competing during this time. And I think the veterinary community did such a fantastic job of balancing those competing needs.

Do you think the role of veterinarians in society, specifically as it relates to zoonotic diseases, and one of your expertises, was stressed enough by the media during the pandemic? And if not, what do you think the veterinary community could or should do about this?

Dr. Bob Cook:

Well, the first part, was it stressed enough, this was, at the end of the day, a human disease. People were scared. They needed information on how to protect themselves and to the extent that they needed information on how to protect the animals that they were close to, that information was out there. But broadly, media's a double-edged sword. When you're working in a crisis situation, usually it's sound bites. And that can be very challenging to get the important information to a broad audience. And in the case of wildlife health, I think there were many opportunities to link the lives of humans with the environment in which they live. And I think some of the spokespeople who I heard from the veterinary or the ecology community, the One Health community, really did emphasize those things. I don't know if people were listening, but that information was definitely out there.

It was a challenging time is what I was saying before with the politics of the situation. None of us needed that politics. We were trying to deal with this disease and I think that was an important lesson. That, to me, was the unanticipated part. In a way, for 20 years, we've been anticipating in emergence of a disease like this. What I didn't anticipate was some of the public response to that. That was the most troubling and something we need to learn from.

But what can the veterinary community do? I think both because of this political response, but also because of the complexity of the issues and, this is intertwined with the health of the planet. So climate change, emerging disease, our lives and our connection with animals, the One Health concept. I think we can do, as a profession, a better job of educating the media when it's not a crisis. So it doesn't even need to get on the air or in the print media or on a blog, but there are opportunities to work with journalists and educate them so that when these things occur, they both have people to refer to that they can trust, but also that they understand these complexities a little bit better before the pressure is on.

Dr. Gerry Post:

What do you think the general public learned about us and veterinary medicine during the pandemic?

Dr. Bob Cook:

Well, I think it reaffirmed something for the public. I think my sense of it is that most people really do trust their veterinarians, their veterinary technicians, the whole system of people who care about animals and work with pets or work with injured wildlife or all the services that are provided to the public, including veterinarians interfacing with public health. And I think it reaffirmed for especially pet owners that these people really do care and they're there for them. I can't imagine it was a surprise because I think there is quite a bond between people, their pets, and the people who care for those pets. And it's very genuine. So I would say more of a reaffirmation.

But beyond that, I think veterinarians are experts, vets and vet techs and others, in that interface between human health and animal health. So they have a role and they play a role in public health. So perhaps some of the broader public pick up on that. I understand veterinarians have even been recruited to give vaccinations. It's always the joke, veterinarians tend to care more about skin closure and making the pet comfortable perhaps than sometimes is seen in human medicine. So none of that surprises me, but I think it is a role that people maybe didn't fully appreciate.

And then the last thing in my mind is this connection between people and animals and how to mitigate risk in that regard. Things like wildlife markets are not such a big deal in the US, but in places around the world where there is still a connection between wildlife hunting and the marketplace that this poses a risk. In this case, it was China. And in this case, once again, as they did with SARS years ago, they closed down the markets. We'll see. Hopefully there's enough public pressure to fully close those markets because it's no longer really a food security issue. It's a food preference issue. And I think we should be more focused on ensuring that everyone gets nutritious meals rather than a favorite food from a wild source that really can't handle the pressure anymore and now poses, clearly, to more people poses a potential threat. I hope that also was something that the public learned.

I think the place of veterinarians in the wider biomedical community was established much more firmly rather than being separate from, let's say, human medicine or One Health. I think this incident really solidified veterinarians, veterinary technicians, the veterinary role in the One Health and human health, in the one health of the planet. It unfortunately it took COVID. But I think if you were to look for a silver lining, it was that.

In terms of the lessons that not the public learned, but the lessons that veterinarians learned related to COVID, what do you think those were generally? And what lesson did you learn personally from this pandemic?

Dr. Bob Cook:

Well, again, it's hard to speak for the profession, but I think this was, at least for our generation, a unique challenge in how to provide care and ensure the safety of those you work with, ensure the safety of the people that are pet owners, or again, if you worked at a zoo, some of the same issues, or even with wildlife populations. There was a challenge there as to whether one could do their work, whether there was a way through this. And I think that, in most cases at least in the, veterinarians, the people they work with figured out ways, really novel ways like, "Okay, I've got a practice with three veterinarians and six technicians. We'll divide into three separate groups. We'll work on separate days that way one group goes down with a positive test, the other groups fill in."

It was tough because they did get positive tests and were ill. And people were covering for each other. But the lesson was we can do this. We have the ability to adapt to even something as immense as this felt, at least during those first many months.

Another one's that, as far as personally, I said the community of wildlife health professionals, when I was working in the area, even as far back as the late 90s and early 2000s, we wrote about this, we predicted this. So I don't know if there was a lesson as much as, "Yeah, this has come to pass." And unfortunately, despite the years of warning, the infrastructure was unprepared. And perhaps the lesson learned is that this gives us a renewed opportunity to create that infrastructure, both in capacity human capabilities, but also in the technologies and buildings, mobility, all of those things that are required in order to control disease.

Dr. Gerry Post:

In terms of learning that we were right, obviously certainly doesn't help, but in terms of how to take that knowledge and go forward with it. What can we do differently to ensure that we are better prepared in the future?

Dr. Bob Cook:

I think all the pieces are there. And in fact, what we and many leaders beyond myself were pushing for and achieved was a global surveillance network.

There was a system in place. The underpinnings were kicked out a bit during 2019 just before the pandemic, but funding has been re-established. I think the pieces are known and there's now an effort both nationally and internationally to further underpin them to provide the resources, to make these better. And I also think that there are technologies that continue to advance that will make this job easier.

Dr. Gerry Post:

Given your experience and expertise in not only being a veterinarian, but being a wildlife zoo exotic animal veterinarian, about having experience with zoonotic diseases and working with them, as well as your experience in the not-for-profit sector, you have a fairly unique overview of the situation. And I'm wondering, what about your experience in all of those varied areas helped you through COVID-19?

Dr. Bob Cook:

Well, very early on, I think an understanding of the interconnectedness of people, animals, the environment, what we refer to, what we started out as One World, One Health, which is now referred to as One Health, understanding those relationships help me, I think, help those of us in the profession who have worked in that space to understand what the threats were. When the information started coming out, really unsubstantiated information, late December, early January, alarm bells went off very early and that was due to having worked in those markets, having done sampling, understanding that interface between wildlife and people in the marketplace and understanding the relationships, which is the One Health relationship, all helped me to very early anticipate what was going to happen.

And the other thing was the background, for me personally, my background both in wildlife health, but also as a grant maker, working in biomedical sciences and pain alleviation and conservation climate change, I do a lot of reading and the people I work with, the grantees and others are constantly educating me. So as this was unfolding, the early information that was coming through, In a way, for me personally, that's what kept me going was this focus on figuring this out. What did science know? What were the questions? What did we have answers to? What direction was this going in? How was the virus entering the body? How was the body responding to it? Why were we seeing the kinds of illnesses we were seeing? Why it might spread between species as it did with, well, first, what was it? Tigers, lions, gorillas, mink farms, dogs, cats, that these were all possibilities.

My background helped me a great deal too... When I understand the science, to the extent that it's understood, I feel more in control of the situation. It was a very personal part of it, but also one I could share with the people around me as far as the need to protect themselves and, and trying to explain... There's just such, as you remember, so much confusion, right? What was real? What's the real story? Do we wear a mask? Don't we wear a mask? Is it aerosolized? Is it not?

Dr. Gerry Post:

I cannot thank you enough for taking time to do this interview. It is truly my honor and pleasure to interview you for this World Veterinary Day. I think you are absolutely emblematic of the quality of people who are in this profession. And not only am I awed and inspired by the veterinary profession as a whole, I am awed and inspired by you personally. Thank you.

Dr. Bob Cook:

And thank you, Gerry, but do know that you have been an incredible, contributed to veterinary medicine in your own right. So we are a few of many, who make this such a terrific profession.

Dr. Gerry Post

Dr. Gerry Post has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 25 years specializing in veterinary oncology. He currently serves as Chief Veterinary Officer at the One Health Company.

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