Ferrets are valuable models for SARS-CoV-2 research
Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), resulted in an ongoing pandemic with millions of deaths worldwide. Infection of humans can be asymptomatic or result in fever, fatigue, dry cough, dyspnea, and acute respiratory distress syndrome with multiorgan failure in severe cases. The pathogenesis of COVID-19 is not fully understood, and various models employing different species are currently applied. Ferrets can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and efficiently transmit the virus to contact animals. In contrast to hamsters, ferrets usually show mild disease and viral replication restricted to the upper airways. Most reports have used the intranasal inoculation route, while the intratracheal infection model is not well characterized. Herein, we present clinical, virological, and pathological data from young ferrets intratracheally inoculated with SARS-CoV-2. Infected animals showed no significant clinical signs, and had transient infection with peak viral RNA loads at 4 days postinfection, mild to moderate rhinitis, and pulmonary endothelialitis/vasculitis. Viral antigen was exclusively found in the respiratory epithelium of the nasal cavity, indicating a particular tropism for cells in this location. Viral antigen was associated with epithelial damage and influx of inflammatory cells, including activated neutrophils releasing neutrophil extracellular traps. Scanning electron microscopy of the nasal respiratory mucosa revealed loss of cilia, shedding, and rupture of epithelial cells. The currently established ferret SARS-CoV-2 infection models are comparatively discussed with SARS-CoV-2 pathogenesis in mink, and the advantages and disadvantages of both species as research models for zoonotic betacoronaviruses are highlighted.