In mid-July, Valent BioSciences had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Tracey McNamara, DVM, DACVP, and Professor of Pathology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Services. McNamara played the catalyst’s role in identifying West Nile Virus (WNV) in the summer of 1999, working as the lead pathologist at the Bronx Zoo amidst a rising number of dead crows near zoo grounds. Here are our top five takeaways from the interview:
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT: THERE IS A REAL THREAT TO HOMELAND SECURITY THROUGH WILDLIFE.
Dr. McNamara’s discovery first came when she noticed a number of dead crows outside the Bronx Zoo. She did not want whatever was affecting the crows to spread to the zoo animals and over the course of her subsequent research, helped to discover WNV. Had Dr. McNamara not noticed the crows or, rather, not pressed on the issue, response to the outbreak would have been further slowed and it is highly likely that more lives would have been lost. The event points to a series of challenges relating to unmonitored wildlife in the U.S. and gaps in responsibility that could easily contribute to more devastating events in the future.
SILOIZATION OF LOCAL AND FEDERAL AGENCIES CREATES GAPS THAT NEED TO BE CLOSED.
When Dr. McNamara first went to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) she was rebuffed because her samples were from dead crows, not from affected humans. At the time, New York City was dealing with a growing number of human encephalitis cases. Although Dr. McNamara suspected a link between the two, CDC’s mission did not extend to zoo pathology. Ultimately, Dr. McNamara went to the U.S. Army, who then tested her samples and soon the connection between the dying crows and the human cases of encephalitis was made. McNamara works now to create awareness of these gaps: the CDC monitors humans and USDA monitors livestock. All other animals – as common and in close proximity to humans as domesticated dogs and cats – lie outside the purview of these agencies and thus present a biosecurity risk. McNamara is dedicated to raising awareness in this area.
WE FAILED FROM THE VERY BEGINNING WITH WNV.
As Dr. McNamara states in the interview,” if this virus were a Broadway show, it would have closed after the first night.” No one was interested. While she had pivotal evidence to help make the identification (WNV was known in other parts of the world, if not in North America) it took her three weeks to be heard and noticed. Three weeks is an eternity from an epidemiological standpoint.
ZIKA IS SIMILAR TO WNV IN THAT IT CAUGHT US OFF GUARD.
In the interview, Dr. McNamara speaks candidly on the similarities between Zika and WNV. She states that the U.S. does fairly well in responding to an outbreak once it is known, but does not do as well from a preventative standpoint. She mentions that she’s not at all surprised that we are now dealing with another virulent mosquito-borne illness; she thinks mosquitoes will inherit the earth.
THE U.S. WAS TRYING TO GET AHEAD OF THE NEXT EMERGING DISEASE BUT WAS LOOKING IN THE WRONG PLACE.
The Western World has a history of underestimating the spread of diseases. They are capable of spreading quickly. Just a few years ago, the U.S. thought that Ebola was just a “middle of nowhere” disease from the depths of Africa, yet it quickly landed right on our door step. We often think that ravaging diseases can only be imported from these exotic places and we have a buffer of reaction time and technology. But Dr. McNamara notes that seemingly rare or remote diseases, such as Zika, can quickly escalate to something much more.