Omicron Has Been Found in New York’s Deer. What Does That Mean for Us?

Ah, the humble deer. They’re known for a certain heart-wrenching Disney film, for their sometimes wildly long antlers, and now, they’re making a name for themselves in the pandemic. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have detected omicron in the deer of Staten Island. Though researchers have previously detected COVID-19 in wild Midwest and Northeast white-tailed deer–as we reported in December 2021–this is the first time omicron has been found in the animals. The findings, which aren’t yet peer-reviewed or published, have sparked debate on whether new variations of the virus could propagate in the deer population and be passed onto humans. “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,” Dr. Suresh Kuchipudi, a veterinary microbiologist at Pennsylvania State University and leader of the research team, tells the New York Times.

Tests carried out on 131 of these fluffy-tailed animals between mid-December 2021 and late January 2022, using blood and nasal swabs, found that close to 15% of the deer had COVID-19 antibodies. The deer also appeared to be asymptomatic. These results seem to suggest that the deer were previously infected with the virus and could therefore be susceptible to new variants. PCR tests carried out on a smaller number of the population, 68 deer, showed that seven had COVID-19 at the time (with four testing for omicron, specifically).

In case you were curious, white-tailed deer are the most common deer–or “cervid”–across all of North America. Due to their adaptability to a wide range of habitats, there are around 30 million white-tailed deer, including subspecies, across the continent. They can be found in most states, with the exception of Hawaii, Alaska, and in some southwestern regions. It’s because of these large numbers and the widespread nature of the deer population that scientists are growing concerned that if they can infect humans, there would be a significant impact. “Circulation of the virus in an animal population always raises the possibility of getting back to humans, but more importantly it provides more opportunities for the virus to evolve into novel variants,” Dr. Kuchipudi says.

It’s important to note that these infections were recently found in deer that were regularly exposed to people–and at a close proximity, too. This could come down to the deer roaming the park and being hand-fed by people. Or in a less-direct form of transmission, the animals could be infected from the wastewater, which has been found to carry COVID-19 by the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System. There is still no scientific evidence to suggest that deer are capable of passing the virus onto humans. But as COVID-19 is categorized as an infectious disease initially passed between domestic or wild animals and humans, or a zoonotic disease, more research is required. There is speculation among researchers about how the deer are being infected and what this means for animal-human transmission, meaning they are eager to carry out further investigations in this space, namely into how the deer’s COVID-19 antibodies are able to protect them from future strains.