Examining SARS-CoV-2 and enteroviruses in animal poop using citizen science
A citizen science study was deployed to passively conduct surveillance in order to understand the extent of microbial sharing between animals and humans, specifically looking at SARS-CoV-2 and enteroviruses. Citizen science is the practice of inviting public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge. SARS-CoV-2 is the respiratory virus that causes COVID-19 in humans; but many other species can also be infected by SARS-CoV-2, including companion animals (e.g., dogs, cats, ferrets, and hamsters) and numerous wildlife species. Enteroviruses are positive-sense, single-stranded RNA viruses that cause a number of diseases.
Recruitment for the citizen science project occurred through flier distribution to 1) STEM groups and educators, 2) social media, and 3) the general public by physically posting fliers. Interested participants could request a collection kit, which contained: a fecal collection tube treated with DNA/RNA Shield to deactivate but preserve viruses, gloves, TGen barcodes, parafilm, a biohazard bag, a questionnaire, and detailed instructions on how to collect a sample. Kits were mailed to or picked up by participants; and once collected, samples were submitted to TGen North for testing. In the laboratory, RNA was extracted from the fecal samples and tested via RT-PCR using targets for SARS-CoV-2 and broad enterovirus.
166 kits were requested from 68 unique individuals; 57% (94/166) have been returned as of this writing. 94 fecal samples were submitted for analysis: 62 from dogs, 20 from cats, and 12 from other animal species. 76 samples were collected from personal pets and of those, 34% (26/76) had been exposed to a respiratory illness in the past 30 days. All 94 samples tested negative for both SARS-CoV-2 and enteroviruses.
For this project, participation in citizen science would be considered successful if 80% of kits were returned. Since 57% of kits have been returned so far, citizen science was semi-successful. It is not unexpected that 100% of samples tested negative for both SARS-CoV-2 and enteroviruses, as most of these animals were not exposed to illness.
A citizen science study was deployed to passively conduct surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 and enteroviruses in animals. Although neither of these viruses were detected in the samples returned, the use of citizen science saved time and was overall more cost-efficient compared to traditional sample collection methods. Importantly, citizen science may help address gaps in surveillance and improve overall efficiency, potentially playing a critical role in the development of a sustainable zoonotic disease surveillance system in Arizona.