Why Omicron in deer may ‘haunt us in the future’

Researchers say infected wild deer on Staten Island could become a ‘reservoir’ for the coronavirus

White tailed deer
(Image credit: Stan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer)

The first confirmed cases of Omicron in wild animals has triggered fresh warnings about the potential threat posed by future Covid-19 mutations that could be transmitted to humans.

The newly reported cases in white-tailed deer on Staten Island in New York “add to a growing body of evidence” that the species is “easily infected by the virus”, reported The New York Times. And the latest findings are “likely to intensify fears” that deer, which are widespread in human-populated areas across the US, “could become a reservoir for the virus and a potential source of new variants”.

Chance for virus to ‘adapt and evolve’

Researchers have previously reported earlier variants of Covid-19 in deer in 15 US states. The animals are believed to be catching the virus from humans and then spreading it to other deer, but not back to people.

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However, scientists fear that widespread circulation of the virus in deer may give the virus more opportunity to mutate, “potentially giving rise to new variants that could spill over into people or other animal species”, said the NYT.

The spread of the virus among wild deer could increase the risk further.

“The circulation of the virus in deer provides opportunities for it to adapt and evolve,” said Vivek Kapur, a veterinary microbiologist at Penn State University who was part of the Staten Island research team. “And it’s likely to come back and haunt us in the future.”

The fact that Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, can infect animals “is not new”, said Vox. Since the start of the pandemic, the virus has been detected in “cats, dogs, lions, tigers, pumas, ferrets, mink, certain rodents, snow leopards, and others”.

But “this is the first time that a completely free-living animal species in the wild has been found to be infected”, said infectious disease researcher Suresh Kuchipudi, who also worked on the new study, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal.

“And that infection is widespread,” he added.

Working alongside conservation nonprofit White Buffalo and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the university team collected blood samples from 131 Staten Island deer between mid-December and the end of January.

A total of 19 of the deer, nearly 15%, were found to have antibodies for Omicron, suggesting they had been previously infected with the virus. PCR testing of 68 deer found that seven were actively infected, with at least four of the cases confirmed to be Omicron.

One deer had “high” levels of antibodies in its blood, according to the researchers. While they “cautioned that it was impossible to make sweeping conclusions” based on the single deer, the funding suggests that “deer can be repeatedly reinfected by new variants”, giving rise to further mutations, said the NYT.

The scientists speculated that people could be spreading Covid-19 to the deer by “hand-feeding them in the park”, or “more indirectly through wastewater”, the London Evening Standard reported.

They “now hope to conduct more research to determine which of the variants each of the deer were infected by and what level of protection they have from antibodies”, the paper said.

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