Spanish animal health laboratories help break COVID-19 transmission chains in humans


The experience of the Animal Health Research Centre – CISA (Centro de Investigación en Sanidad Animal, Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Tecnología Agraria y Alimentaria – Madrid, Spain) in Madrid, Spain

Large-scale early diagnosis is key to cutback the transmission of COVID-19 between humans. CISA is currently testing an average of more than 320 human specimens per day to support the increase of activity of public health laboratories.

Spain has an important livestock production sector, as well as highly qualified Veterinary Services, diagnostic laboratories and animal health research centres. Many of these centres and laboratories, such as CISA, have been actively involved in the response to several other animal health crises, which were successfully managed and eradicated over the years. Lessons learnt from these epizootics [1] have shown the great value of early detection as one of the pillars for disease control, along with a set of additional measures.


[1] i.e., foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, African swine fever or African horse sickness

As a centre specialised in animal health research activities, CISA does not routinely conduct diagnostic tests. Yet, its researchers have vast experience in virological analysis and in fighting epizootics. Aware of what was already happening in other countries at the end of February, CISA researchers decided to get prepared in case their support was needed by the public health sector.

Preparedness was achieved thanks to collaborative initiatives with other institutions, including the acquisition of reference standards and other biological material. Moreover, an in-house diagnostic technique, in line with the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, was standardised. Alternative materials were used to replace the highly demanded kits handled by human laboratories.

One month later, the COVID-19 team at CISA, comprised of 30 volunteers, began testing human specimens for SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19. The operation moves an average of 320 samples per day. Samples come from personnel providing essential services in Madrid, such as police officers, social and health workers, firemen, food inspectors in markets, etc. Maintaining the safety of these essential personnel has been key for limiting the spread of the virus among their peers and within the community.

To date, CISA has analysed nearly 10,000 samples, demonstrating the importance of the cooperation from all the relevant sectors, including veterinary laboratories and animal health research centres, to achieve large-scale early diagnosis. As one of the pioneers in this cooperation, the experience of CISA researchers contributed to the development of the OIE Guidance for Veterinary Laboratories to support the Public Health response for COVID-19. These guidelines are currently being used by other veterinary laboratories that want to undertake similar initiatives to help break COVID-19 transmission chains in humans.


General Coordination: Dr Marisa Arias (director CISA) and Lara del Rio (Technical Director CISA); Logistic and laboratory Coordinators:  Drs Jovita Fernández-Pinero and Miguel Angel Jimenez-Clavero; Head of Biosafety Dr Gonzalo Pascual.