New York

NY Deer Lousy With Old COVID Variants, Study Shows — Mutation Worries Abound

The study out of Cornell University found large pockets of old COVID-19 variants in deer that were no longer circulating among humans

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Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have been far-reaching, a bracing reality further supported by the latest target of the highly-transmissible virus: New York's deer population.

New research collected from a team at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine -- published last month -- found the virus spreading rapidly through the state's white-tailed deer. Most striking, the researchers pointed out, was that the SARS-CoV-2 variants found in the animals were old and had not been circulating among humans for some months.

The prevalence of past variants sweeping through the deer in dozens of counties across the Empire State raises new worries about the mammals serving as host to the viruses that collectively killed millions and left many more sick over the past couple of years.

More than 5,000 samples were collected from white-tailed deer during the hunting seasons (Sept. to Dec.) in 2020 and 2021 in an effort to take a snapshot of transmission trends. The 17 positive samples ballooned 35-fold in a single year, climbing to 538 (21.1%) of all samples in 2021.

"The low positivity rate in Season 1 could be due to the fact that most samples in our study were collected prior to the peak SARS-CoV-2 cases in humans in NY, which occurred between December 2020 and February 2021," the researchers hypothesize.

By late 2021, deer were collectively testing positive for multiple variants long out of human circulation in at least 48 of the state's 62 counties.

"Notably, while the Alpha and Gamma variants were circulating in [white-tailed deer] in NY in November and December 2021, detection of these [variants of concern] in humans peaked between April and June 2021, with only sporadic detections after August," the group explained.

"Although the pathways for transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to WTD remain largely unknown, human activities such as feeding wildlife or targeted baiting of hunting prey (e.g., WTD) could provide the opportunity for human-to-WTD transmission of the virus."

Researchers said the collected deer samples "were highly divergent" from the virus sequences detected in humans since the explosion of the virus in early 2020. Such a sequence shift suggests "rapid adaption" of the COVID-19 virus, they said.

Mutation of the virus and its spread among deer became a significant worry among the Cornell group, including its potential implications on humans in the future, which remains unseen.

Those behind the study say additional research is needed to examine the possibility of deer-to-human transmission and its risk likelihood. To their knowledge, there has only been one reported case (in Canada) of a person testing positive for a white-tail deer-like variant.

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