The Disease Detectors
How the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory has been protecting our region and the nation for 40 years.
by Marcia Hill Gossard '99, '04
Each year, WADDL scientists run over 25,000 tests to certify fish are free of infectious diseases. The aquaculture industry in the Pacific Northwest, which shares international borders with Canada and the Pacific Rim, relies on testing for domestic and international trade of fish and fish products in the global market.
A new bird flu is discovered half way around the world. Thousands of wild birds have been affected, and it is only a matter of time before it begins to spread globally. Scientists at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Washington State University immediately begin developing tests to identify the disease, so if it appears in our region, they can detect it before an outbreak.
Although this example is fictitious, it is the type of disease surveillance that has been done by the lab since 1974. As one of the 12 core member laboratories in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, WADDL (pronounced waddle), as it is commonly known, is on the frontline of disease detection, food safety, and testing for bioterrorist agents in the Pacific Northwest. WADDL and other laboratories in the network provide national and regional surveillance, including an emergency response system in the event of an outbreak.
On the Frontline of Disease Detection
“When we do disease surveillance for animals, we are also doing it for public health,” said Dr. Tim Baszler, who has been the director of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory for six years.
As the only animal disease laboratory in Washington State, WADDL is at the forefront of detecting and diagnosing diseases in animals—diseases that could also spread to humans. Mad cow and avian flu are just two examples of zoonotic diseases WADDL can test for, said Baszler. WADDL is just one of six labs in the country that tests for mad cow disease.
Zoonotic diseases can spread quickly because of travel and global commerce, including the transport of animals. And improved surveillance can also provide information about how disease is transmitted from animals to animals or animals to humans.
Besides testing for known zoonotic diseases, scientists at WADDL also use surveillance to identify newly emerging diseases. For example, if a veterinarian tests for a disease that they don’t recognize immediately, they will send it to WADDL for further testing. Each year surveillance detects emerging diseases and WADDL is part of that effort.
“Seventy percent of emerging diseases come from animals,” said Dr. Terry McElwain, executive director of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. “The lab is a frontline defense of new diseases.”
Working to Keep Our Food Supply Safe
Foreign animal diseases such as mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease can devastate a cattle herd. For any highly infectious disease, surveillance and rapid testing is vital for preventing the spread of disease and keeping our food supply safe.
“We can give results in hours,” said Baszler. “For veterinarians, lab confirmation is the frontline for surveillance.”
Such fast response helps get sick animals quarantined sooner, which is critical for fast spreading diseases. But knowing quickly, can also help prevent serious economic consequences.
“Testing is essential for trade and the economy,” said Baszler. “Industries in our state depend on the laboratory to allow for the movement of animals and food products.”
The aquaculture industry in Washington State, for instance, relies on testing to export their products such as salmon eggs or fish. Together with state, tribal, federal and aquaculture industry partners, WADDL works to prevent the introduction of catastrophic diseases that could devastate farmed and wild salmonid fish stocks. And that is vital to economic stability and growth in the Pacific Northwest.
WADDL scientists also test for common bacteria that cause food poisoning such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these food-related illnesses affect millions each year and can result in hospitalization or death.
WADDL is only one of six labs in the nation
that tests for bovine spongiform encephalopathy,
commonly known as mad cow disease. Without early
disease detection, it could have devastating
consequences to animal health, trade, and the
“Our food safety testing has grown over the last 20 years, and is particularly important to the poultry producers and regional food suppliers,” said Baszler. “Every day we go to work, we are helping to feed the world.”
A Living Laboratory: Driving Research and Training Future Scientists
WADDL, a state animal health laboratory, is uniquely sited at Washington State University. “We are a laboratory serving the state and public good in a university setting,” said McElwain. And that has its advantages.
The lab provides education and training to students so they are ready to handle new and existing emerging diseases. They also learn about disease surveillance and its importance. And this, says McElwain, makes it a living laboratory for training. “We have a training program that includes veterinary students, undergraduate students and veterinary residents in pathology and microbiology,” said McElwain.
Researchers at WADDL and the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine work to develop diagnostic tests and vaccines, and that leads to technology transfer to the field. Resources and collaboration with faculty at WSU has helped develop new types of tests for diseases such as sheep scrapie, a fatal disease affecting the nervous system of sheep and goats. If there is a disease outbreak, scientists at WADDL and in the college can collaborate to find the best solutions.
“Programmatically it is win-win,” said Dr. Bryan Slinker, dean of the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine. “If there is an outbreak in this region, we are the place.”
Building for the Future
“WADDL is one of the leading labs in the country,” said McElwain. “We are not just any other state animal laboratory.”
Because of its unique role within the University, the state, and the region, there are plans to build enhanced facilities for its 70 employees by 2017. The new building will improve regional and national animal health surveillance capabilities and expand the global disease surveillance program in partnership with the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. The new facilities will also create new educational opportunities for WSU undergraduate, graduate and veterinary students.
“We help our region, our nation, and the world,” said Baszler.