Animal protection: Animal research yields new Valley fever vaccine for dogs  

November 17th 2021

Allyson J. Bennett & Jeremy D. Bailoo

Imagine that your pet dog contracted an infection that caused fatigue, fever, joint pain, and muscle aches. And then imagine that a vaccine was available to help make sure that your pet—or your children, your parents, members of your community, even yourself— did not contract the infection that caused that suffering. You might readily cheer the vaccine without asking where it came from and what research made it possible. You might ask if it works. You might ask if it is safe, or whether and what side effects it has. But what if you asked whether animal research and testing were used to produce the vaccine? What you might learn is that yes, both animal research and testing were used to understand the infection, to produce the vaccine, and to test whether it works and whether it is safe.

Wait, animal research and testing are used to benefit my dog (or cat, or hamster)?

In fact, animal research and animal testing are part of advances that help combat health threats to both humans and other animals. That is because humans and other animals can be stricken by many of the same diseases and are alike in many of their bodily systems. Want to learn more about diseases that humans and other animals share? You can do that at this Foundation for Biomedical Research website and also learn more about how dogs and cats benefit from animal research. At Animal Research Info’s website you can search for diseases and types of animals to learn about many veterinary medical advances that arose through animal research and testing.

The essential role of animal research and testing for advances that benefit animal health is no secret. It is recognized in the statements by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). What do they say?

“While most people are aware that there are numerous human medical discoveries that result from laboratory animal research, there are also many veterinary medical discoveries benefiting animals that result from laboratory animal research.” 

Global pharmaceutical companies, whose job it is to produce new medicines for other animals (among them, Zoetis), also publicly acknowledge the role of animal use in research and testing. You may recognize Zoetis as the company that donated its COVID-19 vaccine to zoos so that zoo animals were protected. What do they say about using animals in their laboratory research and testing program? 

Zoetis is dedicated to helping animals live longer, healthier lives through the discovery and development of breakthrough medicines and therapies. Animal-based biomedical research in the pharmaceutical industry remains a vital component of the discovery, evaluation and regulatory processes, which lead to the development of products that save or improve animal lives throughout the world.”

Bonobos were among the primates vaccinated against Covid-19 at San Diego zoo. Photograph: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance/Reuters

Today’s story, as reported by Maryn McKenna in Wired is on a new Valley Fever vaccine. It is yet another example of how animal research benefits other animals and, potentially, humans as well. 

What is Valley Fever?

According to the CDC, Valley fever (Coccidioidomycosis) is an infection caused by the fungus Coccidioides. The fungus is known to live in the soil in the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico and Central and South America. The fungus was also recently found in south-central Washington state. People can get Valley fever by breathing in the microscopic fungal spores from the air. In 2019, there were 18,407 cases of Valley fever reported to the CDC. In humans, Valley fever can cause fatigue (tiredness), coughing, fever, shortness of breath, headache, night sweats, muscle aches or joint pain and rash on the upper body or legs.These symptoms usually last for a few weeks to a few months. However, some patients have symptoms that last longer than this, especially if the infection becomes severe.

Valley fever is not contagious. It occurs through exposure to the fungus. Nor does it just affect humans. It also affects companion animals, including dogs. An estimated 30 million dogs live in the areas where Valley fever is endemic, including the southwestern US state Arizona. Approximately 1 in 10 dogs develop the disease yearly in some Arizona counties. And, even though less frequent, Valley fever has also been diagnosed in cats. Now, all of that could change.

What is the breakthrough?

The breakthrough is a new vaccine candidate for Valley fever in dogs.  According to a newly published paper the vaccine works, or has shown proof of efficacy in a two-dose regimen.. This is promising news for the roughly 30 million dogs living within the areas where Valley fever is a risk.  Dogs living there may directly benefit from research and testing on their fellow canines.

“We think the results are very convincing that the vaccine shows robust protection in this model—and it’s an aggressive model, compared to wild-type infection,” says John Galgiani, senior author on the paper and director of the University of Arizona Valley Fever Center for Excellence. What that means is that the vaccine works extremely well in an experimental model that produces severe symptoms and is therefore likely to be highly effective.

Doberman Pinscher with Valley fever. Note the head-down posture, and trembling gait, as well as the dog’s loss of mass, so much so that its ribs and other skeletal elements were clearly visible. Source: CDC/ Dr. Maddy, Dr. Lucille K. Georg – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL).

Like so much of animal research, the amount of time, or number of years (i.e., the #TimeScales) from basic research “at the lab bench” to medical advances delivered “bedside” to patients—human or other animals— are often long. How long is this “bench to bedside” period? Well, Galgiani has been working on this vaccine since the 1980s (that’s 40+ years!). And that 40+ years allowed his team to do what hadn’t been done before. In fact, until now, there has not been any vaccine for Valley fever, nor for any fungal disease.

Next Steps

Together with the biotech company Anivive, Galgiani will submit the Valley fever vaccine formula to the US federal agency that approves animal medicines, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The company now plans a real world safety trial with 600 companion dogs whose humans volunteer them for the clinical trial. But the researchers and company aren’t only concerned with protecting dogs. Humans are also at risk from Valley fever. So next, the team hopes to partner with other companies to develop a human vaccine candidate.

A successful vaccine for Valley fever is important to reduce disease and suffering in both humans and other animals. Beyond addressing a significant threat to health, a vaccine can have additional positive consequences. For example, Valley fever is estimated to cost the US $3.9 billion per year.  By one estimate, a successful Valley Fever vaccine could save potentially $1.5 billion in health care costs every year.

The Valley fever vaccine story is but one of many examples that illustrates how animal research and testing benefits both humans and other animals. What it also highlights is the simple fact that as in humans, where participants in clinical trials for new medications or treatments absorb risks in order to benefit others, so too do advances that benefit some animals depend upon the use of others in research and testing. 

Whether one animal should be used in research or testing that may benefit another animal is an ethical consideration. And it applies to both humans and other animals. You might ask: Should animal testing be used to produce safe medicines for other animals? It is a question we’ve asked before and one that you might ask before accepting that new vaccine for your dog. 

Want to read more? Should animal testing be used to produce safe medicines for other animals?