Cornell Pursues the Elusive Coronavirus That Triggers FIP

Scientists have known for some time that certain strains of the feline coronavirus can lead to feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a viral disease that is the leading infectious cause of death in cats under 2 years of age. However, the pathogenesis — the way the usually mild coronavirus develops into often-fatal FIP — remains a mystery.

Studies have found that FIP develops in 5 to 10 percent of cats exposed to coronavirus following a mutation — or more likely several mutations. “What sets the coronavirus apart is its adaptability. It doesn’t move from A to B but almost through the whole alphabet,” says virologist Gary Whittaker, Ph.D., a professor in Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Dr. Whittaker has had a longstanding interest in the feline coronavirus and its relationship to FIP, and he has received support for his ground-breaking research from several sources, including the Cornell Feline Health Center and the Morris Animal Foundation. A one-year grant from the Winn Feline Foundation will allow Dr. Whittaker and his colleagues to continue research on the viruses using their collection of clinical samples.

The complex feline coronavirus is particularly challenging, he says, explaining that RNA viruses, those with ribonucleic acid as their genetic material such as influenza and measles, “always have a narrow window on how they adapt to the environment or an animal, but the coronavirus has a much more open window to move into different territories — different species and different tissues.”

The result is that the coronavirus undergoes multiple mutations. “RNA viruses are mutating all the time,” Dr. Whittaker says, “but coronaviruses are able to really take advantage of these mutations.” His goals are to develop a simple blood test to diagnose FIP in the early stages — only biopsies are diagnostic right now — and ultimately to target a drug for treatment. ❖