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Leading diagnostic labs say testing delays are possible for some feline samples

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Those two cats who tested positive for COVID-19 in New York State last month may have thrown a wrench in lab-test turnaround time for all the other cats.

An AAHA-accredited referral hospital received an email from Ethos Diagnostic Science (now owned by Zoetis) last week cautioning about the possibility of slight delays in turnaround times for lab results involving a couple of very specific feline tests—delays directly tied to the introduction of more rigorous laboratory safety protocols after those two cats tested positive. 

NEWStat looked into it to see how that news might affect other AAHA-accredited hospitals.

"While we aim to continue business as usual as much as possible,” the email stated, “we are watching for developments at any of our Zoetis facilities from potential exposure to COVID-19, and in accordance with guidance from local government and health authorities, we are taking appropriate steps to maintain a safe work environment for our colleagues and anyone who visits our sites.”

“Due to the recent reports on the slight possibility of active feline infections with COVID-19, and following CDC guidelines, we now must treat all respiratory fluid and fecal samples from cats as a possible source of virus aerosolization and risk of human exposure. The handling of these samples is currently being performed under safety hoods with additional protective equipment by our staff at our larger labs where these measures are possible.”

The email said that all of the company’s labs across the country were currently open.

It goes on to advise that the above-mentioned additional safety precautions could possibly add an additional one- to two-day delay in turnaround times on certain lab tests. Specifically:

  • fluid analysis and/or cytology on feline Bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) or tracheal wash submitted as fluid
  • Fecal ova and parasite (O&P) exams on felines
  • Giardia enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) on feline feces

The email was signed by Richard Goldstein, DVM DACVIM (SAIM) DECVIM-CA, Vice-President and Chief Medical Officer, Medical Affairs, Global Diagnostics, Zoetis.

NEWStat spoke to Goldstein to find out more about the reason for the possible delays.

“When it became apparent that there is a chance [of infection], albeit very small, our first priority is always protection—protecting our colleagues and our staff,” Goldstein told NEWStat. “After [it] became clear that there was the potential for cats to become infected, [the company] looked at the CDC guidelines for the handling of human samples that could be infected in labs.” He said the company decided to follow those guidelines in order to protect laboratory staff.

“Samples from cats that have the potential to be aerosolized and the virus to get into the air [which include samples from the cat’s respiratory tract, feline fecal samples that were centrifuged, and any fresh tissues from cats] would have to be handled in a special way to make sure that our staff was protected,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein also stressed that those types of samples aren’t common: “It’s not bloodwork; it’s not CBCs and chemistries and urinalysis. [This kind of testing includes] sampling directly from the lungs,” which is less usual. Zoetis operates some smaller labs in facilities like the referral hospital mentioned earlier, but for safety reasons he said those types of tests could only be done in Zoetis’s larger laboratories. That involves shipping, which is where the possible delays come in. “The volume for these samples is really small, but we thought we did need to tell our customers about it because we didn’t want any surprises.”

Zoetis can continue to process dry slides from feline respiratory tract samples for cytology in their smaller local laboratories.

Goldstein said hospital feedback has been positive. “They all appreciate the importance of protecting the staff.” Some hospitals even asked for advice on how to better protect their own staff while taking such samples. “The point was to stress that even if there’s a tiny chance that a person or a technician is going to be exposed to fluid from a cat’s lungs, we should just take precautions because we know there is a possibility that those samples could be infected,” Goldstein added. “So I think the delay is a minor issue.”

Zoetis isn’t the only company bracing for possible testing delays.

NEWStat also reached to Antech Diagnostics to find out if they’ve instituted similar additional safety protocols that might delay testing. Antech performed the tests that led to the two cats in New York testing positive for COVID-19 in April. Their results were later confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture, per standard operating procedure.

“Antech has implemented strict protocols around COVID-19 safety,” Jennifer Klein, Antech’s vice president of marketing, told NEWStat via email. “This includes associate and facility protocols in accordance with CDC recommendations as well as good laboratory practice protocol guidance around handling and processing of potentially infectious samples.”

Klein acknowledged the possibility of operational delays for specific tests in specific regions, adding that any delays would be posted on Antech’s website (as of press time, Antech was reporting some delays in testing turnaround in their New York City laboratory and none in Canada.)

But more importantly . . .

Klein says Antech’s labs haven’t turned up any new COVID-19-positive cats since the those first two in New York.

Photo credit: © iStock/Yuliya