Scientists studying the spread of coronavirus in white-tailed deer have detected the presence of the omicron variant, confirming for researchers that animals should continue being monitored for the virus.
In a study funded by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), investigators at Pennsylvania State University found the variant in the nasal swabs of seven deer in Staten Island. The swabs were tested between December 13, 2021, and Jan. 31, 2022.
Penn State virology professor Suresh Kuchipudi, who is leading the research team, noted the variant’s spillover into deer indicates the virus may evolve undetected in animal hosts. However, it’s not surprising to find a variant in an animal species, as several animal species have been confirmed with variants as early as March 2021, and it’s expected to see the same variants in animals that are circulating in people.
“It is critical to continuously monitor transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in deer and other animals to limit the emergence of novel variants in animal populations,” said Kuchipudi.
This research is part of a larger USDA effort to monitor the virus’s progression in animal populations. Under USDA’s One Health initiative, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has developed a strategic framework to guide surveillance of the virus and build an early warning system to alert public health partners to potential threats.
Kuchipudi’s study is one of 15 that NIFA-funded for its COVID-19 Rapid Response Research program, which implemented an expedited solicitation, evaluation and grant-making process to quickly deploy funding. It was the first study to be funded in early July 2020, only 81 days after the program was first announced in April.
Since launching the COVID-19 Rapid Response Research program, NIFA has allocated more than $12.5 million in studies focusing on the pandemic’s impact on the food and agriculture supply chain, livestock health, food safety, and the well-being of farm and food service providers and rural Americans.
Early outcomes from NIFA’s COVID-19 Rapid Response investment include developing training resources and creating disease spread models.