Detection of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) infection of white-tailed deer

bioRxiv. 2022 Feb 7;2022.02.04.479189. doi: 10.1101/2022.02.04.479189. Preprint


White-tailed deer ( Odocoileus virginianus ) are highly susceptible to infection by SARS-CoV-2, with multiple reports of widespread spillover of virus from humans to free-living deer. While the recently emerged SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.529 Omicron variant of concern (VoC) has been shown to be notably more transmissible amongst humans, its ability to cause infection and spillover to non-human animals remains a challenge of concern. We found that 19 of the 131 (14.5%; 95% CI: 0.10-0.22) white-tailed deer opportunistically sampled on Staten Island, New York, between December 12, 2021, and January 31, 2022, were positive for SARS-CoV-2 specific serum antibodies using a surrogate virus neutralization assay, indicating prior exposure. The results also revealed strong evidence of age-dependence in antibody prevalence. A significantly (χ 2 , p < 0.001) greater proportion of yearling deer possessed neutralizing antibodies as compared with fawns (OR=12.7; 95% CI 4-37.5). Importantly, SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid was detected in nasal swabs from seven of 68 (10.29%; 95% CI: 0.0-0.20) of the sampled deer, and whole-genome sequencing identified the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron VoC (B.1.1.529) is circulating amongst the white-tailed deer on Staten Island. Phylogenetic analyses revealed the deer Omicron sequences clustered closely with other, recently reported Omicron sequences recovered from infected humans in New York City and elsewhere, consistent with human to deer spillover. Interestingly, one individual deer was positive for viral RNA and had a high level of neutralizing antibodies, suggesting either rapid serological conversion during an ongoing infection or a "breakthrough" infection in a previously exposed animal. Together, our findings show that the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.529 Omicron VoC can infect white-tailed deer and highlights an urgent need for comprehensive surveillance of susceptible animal species to identify ecological transmission networks and better assess the potential risks of spillback to humans.

Key findings: These studies provide strong evidence of infection of free-living white-tailed deer with the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.529 Omicron variant of concern on Staten Island, New York, and highlight an urgent need for investigations on human-to-animal-to-human spillovers/spillbacks as well as on better defining the expanding host-range of SARS-CoV-2 in non-human animals and the environment.

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