Michigan State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory Supports Additional Diagnostics for Unusual Morbidity/Mortality Events

By Courtney Chapin

A Message from MSU VDL Director Kimberly Dodd, DVM, PhD, MS

illustrations of zebra, otter, tiger, elephant, bear, and elk.

As director of the Michigan State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, my priority is to ensure that we provide clinicians with timely, high-quality diagnostic test results to inform the treatment of the animals in their care. At the Laboratory, we’re focused on harnessing new technologies and capabilities to continually enhance and expand our testing services in all areas including clinical pathology and endocrinology, cancer diagnostics, toxicology and nutrition, and infectious diseases. As a profession, after the years-long COVID pandemic, we’re even more cognizant of the real risks posed by emerging infectious diseases, those that impact animal health as well as those with zoonotic potential.

The Laboratory receives cases from all species for infectious disease testing and while it’s relatively rare that we are unable to detect and identify the causative agent, we know those cases are frustrating for clinicians—they are for us as diagnosticians too! It happens at veterinary diagnostic laboratories across the country, usually for one of two reasons: funding limitations for additional testing, or because the testing laboratory has exhausted all available testing options. For the latter, the MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory recently established a new section, Next Generation Diagnostics (NGD), focused on building new capabilities for infectious disease diagnostics. We look forward to sharing more about NGD in the future!

In the meantime, we’re excited to be the implementing partner for the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) new Unusual Morbidity/Mortality Event (UME) program, established to address the need for additional funding and capacity to work up unusual disease events. This program was borne out of discussions between our laboratory, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) following the canine parvovirus cases last summer.

As many will recall, in August 2022, local, regional, and national mainstream and veterinary media outlets reported a fatal “unknown, parvo-like” illness in Michigan dogs. The possibility of a new threat to animal health is a priority for not only practitioners and pet owners, but also for state and federal officials. We worked with MDARD to investigate and prepared to address a novel pathogen if our initial diagnostics failed to reveal a clear cause of disease. Although point-of-care (SNAP) tests were initially negative, once we received samples at the Laboratory, we quickly determined that it was a well-known threat to unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated dogs: canine parvovirus.

During our response to the disease event, we started discussions with USDA APHIS officials about the potential ways APHIS could support work-up of these unusual morbidity/mortality events, or UMEs, at veterinary diagnostic laboratories around the country. The resulting program will directly support laboratories in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN) working to diagnose UMEs. The NAHLN is the network of 60 academic, state, and federal laboratories that serve as the first line of defense against high-consequence animal disease outbreaks; the MSU VDL is an active participant in the NAHLN.

A UME is currently defined as a situation in which routine diagnostic investigation fails to identify a cause in an unusual or atypical manifestation of disease—including high morbidity, mortality and/or rate of spread—or when an investigation suggests a possible effect on trade, public health, or the viability of an industry or region; or a genuine suspicion of an exotic or emergency animal disease that is not otherwise being investigated by USDA. Disease investigations in any animal species may qualify as a UME.

When a UME is found in an animal population and diagnostics performed by a veterinary diagnostic laboratory in the NAHLN lab are negative, the laboratory or clinician can request UME support from USDA and either receive funding to support further testing at their home laboratory or transfer samples to another NAHLN laboratory with additional diagnostic capabilities or expertise in a particular disease syndrome. The USDA UME team will approve requests and facilitate diagnostic planning and, if not already involved in the investigation, the State Animal Health Official will be notified. The MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory’s role will be to administer and distribute funds or, as a NAHLN laboratory, to perform testing if requested. Pursuing diagnostics for UMEs may help veterinarians and diagnosticians detect changes in the behavior of known pathogens, identify new strains of or new species affected by SARS-CoV-2, or detect an entirely new pathogen.

The potential to detect or identify an emerging threat is core to our mission to protect and promote animal and public health. The UME program will allow veterinary diagnostic laboratories to chase down diagnoses in complicated cases through funding to pursue further diagnostics, utilizing new technologies such as next-generation sequencing or digital PCR, and leveraging the expertise across our laboratory network.

While our first goal will always be to minimize animal disease events through preventative medicine and vaccination, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic reminds us that new infectious diseases will continue to emerge, not only in humans, but in animal populations as well. The MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is honored to be the implementing partner in USDA’s new UME initiative to enhance our ability to detect and identify infectious disease agents in our pets, livestock, horses, wildlife, and zoo animals.

Know of a UME? Contact the MSU VDL (517.353.1683) or USDA (aphis.ume@usda.gov).

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published in the Fall 2023 issue of The Michigan Veterinarian, published by the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association.