Monitor virus progression based on cases of distemper in foxes

Can data on distemper in foxes be used to develop a model for monitoring the spread of other viruses?

Professor Timothée Poisot and his team are developing a model dashboard for monitoring wildlife diseases using a dataset of canine distemper cases in Berlin foxes.

Centralized databases for tracking the spread of human diseases have existed for some time but not for wildlife diseasess, even though they are often the source of new human diseases. COVID-19 was a case in point.

A project now underway could help create a system for centralizing animal disease data and collating positive and negative test results for all types of wildlife diseases.

Between 2008 and 2013, two epidemics of canine distemper virus (CDV) swept through Berlin’s urban red fox population. The Berlin-Brandenburg State Laboratory geolocated and collected data including serological information, sex and age from 778 fox carcasses.

Compiling raw data on a dashboard

Timothée Poisot , a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Université de Montréal, believes this data could be very valuable. This summer, he is leading a small team exploring the possibility of transforming the raw monitoring data into a dashboard of risk indicators, a sort of "Weather Channel for wildlife diseases," as he puts it.

Cole Brookson, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and Ariane Bussières-Fournel, an undergraduate student in Biological Sciences, will determine which data to include and exclude, and then standardize and classify the data.

Berlin is a useful case because there is enough data on CDV in foxes to make precise calculations.

"There were cases of distemper in highly urbanized parts of Berlin, which made it possible to create datasets that tell us about the quality of the data needed to create models that could inform policymakers and the public about the prevalence of the distemper virus in specific areas," Poisot explained.

Standardizing the data

The data includes serological information on 778 geolocated urban fox carcasses collected by the Berlin-Brandenburg State Laboratory.

Credit: Pharos/Mapbox

Brookson describes the project’s goal as demonstrating the importance of standardizing data and sharing it on a platform to make it usable by more people.

"Standardization is key to developing a monitoring tool like the dashboard we’re trying to create, because data from different sources don’t necessarily have the same collection and sharing parameters," he said.

"Standardization will also make it possible to make the data interactive, based on statistical models that can be used to perform calculations for predicting the spread of wildlife diseases, such as rabies in certain mammals in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region," Poisot added. "In this way, the dashboards will be able to support decision-making and inform the public about the potential risk of a particular disease in a given region."

Canine distemper

Very present in Quebec, distemper mainly affects canines, including dogs, coyotes, wolves and foxes.

Credit: Getty

Canine distemper virus (CDV), also known as footpad disease, is an often-fatal viral infection of wild animals. It mainly affects canids (dogs, coyotes, foxes, wolves), as well as raccoons and skunks, and is very common in Quebec. Canine distemper is not transmissible to humans.

The virus is spread mainly through the nasal and ocular secretions of infected animals. The symptoms can vary but generally include fever, loss of appetite, cough, conjunctivitis, runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea and convulsions. In severe cases, the infection can lead to pneumonia, neurological disorders and even death.

Vaccination is the best way to prevent distemper in pets. Dogs are routinely vaccinated against CDV at an early age. Boosters are needed to maintain protection.