There are over 30 million white-tailed deer in the U.S. It’s a boon for hunters, a headache for gardeners, a danger for motorists — and now it appears, a problem that has could happen during the world’s continued effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on a new study (Published in bioRxiv, Penn State University researchers found that several white-tailed deer caught and tested on Staten Island in New York were infected with the virus. Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. This is the first such finding in a non-human animal.
COVID-19 has been previously found in deer. In 2020 and 2021, The United States Department of Agriculture discovered earlier versions of the virus in 481 deer sampled in 15 states. But the Omicron variant is causing more concern than its predecessors simply because of its extreme transmissibility and the close quarters that humans and deer often inhabit.
Small study; The researchers took nasal swabs from 68 deer, and they found Omicron in five of them. The question is how likely is this discovery to transmit the virus from humans to deer and back? For now, at least, researchers can’t say. The study merely showed that the animals were harboring the virus but did not reveal anything about how they contracted it, whether they shed it, or even if they were even capable of transmitting it to one another. .
“As we continue to find these transmissions in animals, such as deer, the complexity of the transmission,” said Suresh Kuchipudi, Penn State veterinary virologist and co-author of the study. Virus evolution and transmission networks become much more complex. “There is a possibility that the virus could circulate among deer and they could become a large reservoir.”
Troubledly, at least one of the deer in the sample was found to not only harbor the virus but also have high levels of antibodies against it. That suggests a wild animal equivalent of a breakthrough infection: an animal that had been infected with the virus before, developed a natural immune response to it, but was then re-infected. .
If deer carry the virus, there is no reason to assume that other animals do not. While it is impractical – or even possible – to test every animal species within reach of humans, certain animal species are of particular interest to investigators. Kuchipudi is concerned about deer rats, skunks and feral cats, which previous laboratory studies have shown are highly susceptible to COVID-19 infection. Other rodents are also causing anxiety.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that rodents pick up the virus from humans and spread it to other animals living in the same ecological space,” said Kuchipudi.
The Penn State authors suggest that the greatest concern right now is not whether deer are a more significant intermediary in the spread of Omicrons to humans. We’re doing a perfectly good job at spreading it among us. Rather, deer could become a food for virus mutations and the emergence of more variants that could, in theory, jump and infect humans.
“If left unattended, continued circulation of this virus in any animal species could lead to the evolution and emergence of entirely new variants that have the potential to weaken protection offered by current vaccines,” said Kuchipudi. “The last thing we want is to be surprised by a completely novel variant that can emerge from animals.”
Researchers are now trying to figure out how to reduce that risk. There is some precedent for handling animals found to contain COVID-19, but it is extreme: When 11 hamsters in a pet store in Hong Kong were recently found to have COVID-19, authorities ordered Killed 2,000 hamstersand when the virus was found circulating among 17 million mink raised in Denmark November 2020, mink is slaughtered. It is clear that such measures cannot be taken on infected deer in the US.
Instead, Kuchipudi recommends, US wildlife management experts could start with a captive program and vaccinate deer in areas where the virus is found to be endemic. Search for the source of the virus — via wastewater or other environmental contaminants — may also be an option.
Infected deer are not the most pressing problem facing health officials in controlling the pandemic, but they serve as one more sign of the virus’s prevalence. SARS-CoV-2 is a decisive opportunistic pathogen that is increasingly non-discriminatory in the hosts it infects and will continue to infect. A virus that seemed to have arrived at the same time more than two years ago is not leaving us any time soon.