Cattle farmers exposed to coronavirus may be better protected from COVID-19

Veterinarian Dr. John T. Wise at his home in Staunton on April 26, 2021.

MIDDLEBROOK, Va. – Have you heard the story of the beautiful milkmaid immune to smallpox that led to the discovery of the first vaccine in history?

It began more than two centuries ago with a country doctor and his 13-year-old apprentice. The doctor observed that cattle farmers who had cowpox were later found to be immune to smallpox. The young apprentice became obsessed with this observation and years later, he would go on to develop the smallpox vaccine.

Could medical forensics one day show that when it comes to cattle farmers and COVID-19, some farmers may have an advantage when it comes to coronavirus disease?

Two country doctors in Virginia have a theory based on anecdotal evidence and veracity. One a family doctor, the other a livestock veterinarian.

Family doctor John “Rob” Marsh is a hero in the eyes of his patients and was voted country doctor of the year in 2014. Marsh led the medical team in the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force when the Black Hawk helicopter was shot down during a mission in Somalia. Somewhat of a celebrity in the small town of Middlebrook, the majority of patients Marsh treats live in rural areas and many of them are cattle farmers.

Dr. John Marsh delivers his keynote address during Stuarts Draft's Veterans Day assembly in Virginia on Nov. 10, 2015.

Throughout the pandemic, Marsh began to notice that his patients who are cattle farmers, specifically those who work the farm and have contact with cows every day, were not getting COVID-19. Or, if they did, their symptoms were mild. He noticed this difference extended into the farmer’s family. If a family member didn’t work with cattle, this patient’s symptoms would differ in terms of severity.

Marsh believes his patient outcomes have something to do with cattle getting coronaviruses.

“I have a theory that farmers who work with livestock get an exposure to the coronavirus,” said Marsh. “And even though that virus would not attack them, their immune system recognizes it, and I believe that it has given them a little bit of extra protection that others may not get.”

Marsh emphasized his observations are purely anecdotal and that he doesn’t have any scientific data to back it up.

“It seems like it’ll be interesting to see nationally if that bears out.”

When Marsh treated cattle farmers positive for COVID-19, they had fewer symptoms and recovered from the disease quickly.

“And I don’t think it’s because they’re that much healthier,” he said. “They still have the same pre-existing medical problems as the other people who live in the country.”

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Marsh isn’t the only one who believes there is something to this theory. “One of the more famous cattle doctors in Augusta County, Va.,” said Marsh is livestock veterinarian Dr. John T. Wise.

“At some point in time just about every farm has seen Dr. Wise,” said Marsh. “He’s your classic country veterinarian.”

Wise lends his perspective to Marsh’s observations, along with other potential aspects as to why cattle farmers seemed better protected against COVID-19. Along with exposure to other types of coronaviruses commonly found in farm animals, farmers fare better with SARS-CoV-2 because their immune systems are used to picking up new infections, they both speculated.

“Part of the problem with the coronavirus that attacks people is that our immune system doesn’t know how to attack it at first, and we attack it the wrong way,” said Marsh. “But farmers are always used to seeing a lot of different bacteria and viruses. And so I think they have maybe a little bit more of a robust immune system.”

Wise took it a step further, Marsh said.

“Wise felt that it might be because there is such a preponderance of coronavirus within cattle. Again, it doesn’t come to humans, but it’s something that you would be exposed to.”

For Wise, a strong immune system begins with kids playing in the dirt.

The frontier doctor

Standing well over six feet tall wearing a seasoned leather vest, a pair of worn dungarees and a cowboy hat, Wise has the kind of gravitas you see in the classic western movies. His voice steady and low, his eyes piercing yet calm, Wise is a man who is comfortable in his own skin.

Veterinarian Dr. John T. Wise at his home on April 26, 2021.

Sitting down on a chair inside his garage, his head motions back to the 1959 two-cylinder 730 John Deere tractor behind him.

“You ever hear one of them run? They don’t make them like that anymore.”

After selling his share of his medical practice, Wise now works mainly with horses two days a week. The rest of his time, he tends to his land or a farm owned by his family in a nearby town.

Wise believes in preventive medicine and has been practicing it in diet and nutrition ever since he became a veterinarian, he said.

“You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have good health it don’t do you any good. It’s beginning to show up more now in a way I think people realize that.”

During the pandemic, when Wise headed out to farms to treat animals, hardly any of his clients were sick with COVID, he said.

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“These cattle, they have a lot of respiratory disorders and we vaccinate them because it is contagious. And then we have these other viruses that we vaccinate for as a preventive thing ahead of time. My immunity, I feel, has been very well exposed to these viruses around cattle.”

Wise can’t remember the last time he was sick. He doesn’t get colds and has never had the flu, he said. He thinks cattle farmers and COVID-19 potentially could end up being a situation similar to cattle farmers and smallpox.

“We were kind of raised, you might say, in the dirt. In other words, we were kids. We used to get in the creek and play.”

Over the years, he said, kids who grew up on farms were constantly exposed to different types of bacteria and viruses.

“Parents shield their children too much rather than just get them out here and have their antibodies stimulated by different antigens that will develop an immune system.”

When it comes to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, the disease will keep mutating and the vaccines will keep changing, said Wise.

“We give a flu and rhino vaccine yearly that sometimes we give twice a year, but those things mutate so much that they have to constantly keep changing the vaccine, is what we found in horses.”

Wise’s physical is coming up with Dr. Marsh and he knows Marsh is going to want him to get vaccinated.

“Well, I understand that. But you know, when it gets right down to it, it’s still individual choice.”

Veterinarian Dr. John T. Wise at his home in Staunton, Va., on April 26, 2021.

Wise has concerns about the vaccine’s ingredients and the speed in which it came to emergency use. Marsh, on the other hand, was one of the first doctors in the Shenandoah Valley to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. He thinks it’s safe and important for everyone to take.

“Do I recommend that farmers get the coronavirus vaccine? Yes, I do,” said Marsh.

Does Marsh think farmers are less likely to take the vaccine? “No,” Marsh said. “I haven’t seen any more resistance. They know how important vaccines are for animals.”

Farmers are fairly convinced that the COVID-19 vaccine is a good vaccine, he said.

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“They’re agreeable to take it because they know that vaccines work to prevent disease. You cannot farm livestock without using vaccines.”

“​I do not personally know of any reluctance to get the vaccine among farmers,” said Ben Rowe, national affairs coordinator with the Virginia Farm Bureau. “Most farmers I have spoken with are eager to get the vaccine, when available and accessible, and to get their employees and folks they interact with vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Will a shared theory by two country doctors that cattle farmers are protected to some degree from COVID-19 become another page in medical history someday? It’s not the first time this topic has surfaced. The discussion made its way into university circles when the virus began to spread in the U.S.

Dr. Christopher Olsen at the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW-Madison said, “The virus SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 disease is only distantly related to common bovine coronaviruses. While not impossible for there to be some level of cross-recognition of this new virus by antibodies to bovine coronavirus (they are in the same overall subsection of the coronavirus family), I would expect it to be very limited.”

Occupationally, it is an interesting project worth further study, said Marsh.

Follow Monique Calello on Twitter: @moniquecalello.

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