An unwelcome first in Staten Island: Deer in the New York City borough are the first wild animals known to be infected with the omicron variant, researchers say. Scientists tested blood samples from deer captured during a sterilization program and found that 14.5% out of 131 deer had antibodies that suggested a prior COVID infection, Gizmodo reports. Nasal swabs were taken from 68 deer and seven of them, more than 10%, were found to have active infections, at least four of which were the omicron variant. The samples were taken from the temporarily captured deer in Dec. 2021 and Jan. 2022, when the highly infectious variant was surging in the city, the New York Times reports.
Other researchers have found that white-tailed deer appear to be very susceptible to the coronavirus, raising concerns that America's tens of millions of deer could be reservoirs for the virus. According to one study, 80% of deer in Iowa were infected last winter. The Penn State researchers who looked at the Staten Island deer say one of the animals had high levels of antibodies as well as a current coronavirus infection, suggesting it had been reinfected. "You can imagine this could be a never-ending, perpetual cycle of deer constantly circulating the virus among themselves and picking up the new variants," lead researcher Suresh Kuchipudi, a veterinary microbiologist, tells the Times.
It's not clear how the deer became infected, but researchers believe humans may have passed on the virus by hand-feeding the animals. Indirect infection through contaminated trash or wastewater is also a possibility, they say. Study co-author Vivek Kapur warns that the "circulation of the virus in deer provides opportunities for it to adapt and evolve," which "could come back to haunt us in the future." The researchers say the most effective way to curb the spread of omicron and other variants among deer will be to curb its spread in humans. (Read more omicron variant stories.)