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The Penn State Swine Center, part of the College of Argricultural Sciences, is a teaching and research facility that focuses on swine management, development, breeding evaluation and outreach programs that provide animal education across the state of Pennsylvania.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will enable Penn State researchers to study the potential for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, to infect and spread among livestock.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, through its Agricultural and Food Research Initiative, awarded the nearly $1 million grant to a team led by Suresh Kuchipudi, clinical professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The COVID-19 pandemic remains the most significant public health crisis in the modern era, Kuchipudi noted, and the unprecedented global spread of SARS-CoV-2 could pose a significant risk of exposure to livestock. During the pandemic, the new virus has continued to mutate, and there now are numerous genetic versions of SARS-CoV-2.

“Coronaviruses are prone to mutations introduced by several mechanisms during viral replication,” he said. “Cross-host exposures are an important step in the transference of viruses to new hosts, and host-switching events could happen as a result of increased contact between the viruses and these potential new hosts.”

Kuchipudi, who also is the associate director of Penn State’s Animal Diagnostic Laboratory, explained that in 2002, the first SARS virus infected fewer than 9,000 people but spilled over into pigs.

“That virus did not spread widely and was contained quickly, so there wasn’t a major impact to animal agriculture,” he said. “However, it demonstrated the ability of SARS viruses to spill over into agricultural animals. Similar spillover events of SARS-CoV-2 into the agricultural system would be disastrous because the U.S. livestock sector plays a critical role in providing a safe and reliable food supply, as well as jobs and other economic benefits.”

To investigate the susceptibility of livestock to SARS-CoV-2 and determine if the virus can adapt and spread among agricultural animals, researchers will employ a combination of experimental infection studies using cell cultures and animals. These experiments will take place in a biosafety level 3 environment. The team also will use computer models to assess the chance for the virus to infect livestock species efficiently.

“In addition, we will develop diagnostic tests and use them to monitor the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in livestock animals,” Kuchipudi said. “We expect that our results will aid in the development of rapid decision-making strategies to safeguard the agricultural supply chain, the health and security of livestock, the safety of food, and the well-being of the farming community.”

Kuchipudi credited seed funding from Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences for helping his lab quickly assemble a multidisciplinary team to establish methods and generate preliminary data, which aided in securing this competitive grant.

This team combines expertise in virology and molecular biology from Kuchipudi; in veterinary microbiology from Meera Nair, assistant clinical professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences; in ecology and epidemiology from Kurt Vandergrift, associate research professor of biology, Eberly College of Science; and in computational modeling and chemical engineering from Costas Maranas, Donald B. Broughton Professor of Chemical Engineering, College of Engineering.

“This shows the excellent resources and expertise that Penn State can provide to respond rapidly and answer important research questions relating to emerging infectious-disease threats,” Kuchipudi said.

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