New York City Rats Found Infected With Virus That Causes COVID, New Worrying Study Shows

There are supposedly as many rats as people in New York City and some of them carry variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, according to a study published this week.


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What study shows

It’s not entirely clear how the rats contracted SARS-CoV-2 or whether they pose a particular danger to human health.

But theoretically, the fact that they can catch the virus from people means they can pass it back, according to researchers. This would be a particular concern if, say, they incubated a highly contagious vaccine-resistant variant.

Pets like cats, dogs and hamsters; zoo animals such as big cats, primates and hippos; farmed mink; and wildlife such as deer and anteaters are among the animals in which Covid-19 infections have been reported. For the study, published Thursday in the American Academy of Microbiology’s journal mBio, the researchers captured 79 rats from three sites in Brooklyn in 2021 and tested them for exposure to SARS-CoV-2.


19% of rats infected weith SARS-CoV-2

Fifteen of the rats, about 19%, showed evidence of infection with SARS-CoV-2, according to the study, published Thursday in mBio. Two of those were infected at the time of study, though they didn’t show any obvious symptoms, according to Xiu-Feng “Henry” Wan, a pathogen expert at the University of Missouri, who helped lead the study.   

“Most of the rats were trapped in city parks within Brooklyn, although some were captured near buildings outside of park boundaries,” study co-author Dr Tom DeLiberto, SARS-CoV-2 coordinator with the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said in a news release.

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16.5% rats had antibodies against the virus

Thirteen, or 16.5%, of the 79 rats were found to have IgG or IgM antibodies against the virus, suggesting a previous infection with SARS-CoV-2.

“A number of studies have suggested that fragments of SARS-CoV-2 genomes were identified in sewage water systems, and that the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage water systems coincides with outbreaks in resident human populations,” the researchers note.

“However, no evidence has shown that SARS-CoV-2 viruses in sewage water are infectious, suggesting that sewage rats may have been exposed to the virus through airborne transmission, e.g. overlapping living spaces with humans or indirect transmission from unknown fomites, e.g. contaminated food waste.”

Representational Image: Unsplash

Rodents & diseases

This isn’t the first time rodents in New York have been shown to harbor pathogens.

In 2015, city rats were shown to be carrying fleas that could theoretically become infected with and transmit the plague. (An outbreak of bubonic plague carried by such fleas killed one-third of Europeans in 1347. Now, plague is treated with antibiotics.)

And in 2018, mice living in New York apartment building basements were found to carry disease-causing bacteria, antibiotic-resistant bugs and never-before-seen viruses. W. Ian Lipkin, a researcher at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who was involved in both earlier studies but not the new one, said he’s not at all surprised city rats would be infected with SARS-CoV-2.

But there’s no evidence that any human illnesses can be blamed on the rodents, he said.

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“When we did our studies of rats and mice in NYC, we were unable to say more than that both carried antibiotic resistant strains of human bacterial pathogens.”

Lipkin said he’s more concerned about mice than rats because they come into closer contact with people, living in apartment building walls often scurrying into inhabited spaces. “We have a more intimate relationship with mice,” he said.

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