Three representatives from two different Istituti Zooprofilattici Sperimentali (IZSs) have answered our questions. These public veterinary Institutes are part of a network coordinated by the Italian Minister of Health . They provide technical and operative support to the National Sanitary Service with regard to animal health and welfare, food safety and environmental protection. The IZSAM and the ISZLER are also OIE Reference Laboratories.
 In Italy, National Veterinary Services are placed under the Authority of the Minister of Health.
Since the detection of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, last December, there has been an exponential rise in the number human cases worldwide. Because of its significant morbidity and mortality, as well as its rapid spread, the disease was declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) and, later on, a pandemic. Dr Giovanni Savini explains about the context in Italy.
Italy has been one of the first countries facing human cases of COVID-19. Since the first case was reported in Codogno (Lombardy region) on 21 February, more than 190,000 cases have been confirmed and 25,500 human deaths recorded . The disease is putting to the test the National Health System (NHS) preparedness and its ability to respond to infectious threats.
Diagnostic testing is crucial to identify people infected with SARS–CoV-2, the causative agent for COVID-19, and control the infection. The WHO defines a confirmed case as “a person with laboratory confirmation COVID-19 infection irrespective of clinical signs and symptoms”. In this perspective, laboratories capable of performing thousands of tests per day, while maintaining diagnostic accuracy and speed, are indispensable.
Veterinary laboratories have an extraordinary experience in the diagnosis of infectious diseases, including in emergency situations. The Italian Ministry of Health and Regional Authorities involved the several Istituti Zooprofilattici Sperimentali (IZSs) in the testing of human samples. Their high capacity regarding personnel, equipment and facilities fits well with the extraordinary surge in demand for diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2. With thousands of human samples examined per day by the IZSs, the diagnostic capacity of the NHS has greatly improved in this particular phase of infection control.
IZSs have experience in quality assurance, biosafety, biosecurity, and high throughput testing for the surveillance and control of infectious diseases in animals, some of which are zoonotic. They can also contribute to a better understanding of the epidemiology of the disease. This knowledge will possibly prevent the establishment of new transmission chains. A few cases of SARS-CoV-2 were reported in dogs, domestic cats, lions and tigers. The role of domestic animals in the epidemiology of this virus seems to be negligible, further studies are needed to clarify it.
Now more than ever, the holistic One Health approach is crucial to give an adequate and fair response to this global pandemic. The Italian experience proves that, the multidisciplinary collaboration of professionals working with the NHS, in particular the involvement of Veterinary laboratories, has been crucial to properly face the challenges posed by COVID-19.
In a more general way, coronaviruses are well known by veterinarians as they can cause severe animal diseases with high economic impact. In addition, some viruses of this family infect humans but originate in animals. They find intermediate hosts, as it was the case of SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV with masked palm civets and dromedary camels, respectively. Collaboration between the animal and human health sectors is therefore key.