COVID variant found in NYC sewers may be from rats: study

The next variant of the coronavirus may come courtesy of NYC’s rat population.

A new study published this month in the journal Nature Communications has attempted to trace the origins of mystifying virus fragments found over the last year in New York’s sewage. The “cryptic lineages” surfacing from the city’s dank underbelly are different than all known COVID variants, leading scientists to believe a curious new version of the virus may be percolating in the boroughs’ sewage.

While some researchers believe the latest take on COVID-19 can be attributed to yet unsequenced human strains of the virus, others believe it is a new, rat-born variant.

“One of the amino-acid changes that we’re seeing in the virus has not been seen in patients. Ever. But this amino-acid change has been seen in rodent-adapted virus, which really says something to me,” Marc C. Johnson, a University of Missouri virologist and co-author of the new study, told Curbed of the reasoning behind the variant being born of rats. Rodents, he added, were not susceptible to the original strain of COVID, but can be infected by its Alpha, Beta and Gamma editions.

possible rat covid variant
Could this little critter be harboring the newest coronavirus variant as you read this caption?
Getty Images
possible rat covid variant
Researchers believe the next COVID-19 variant may come from rats.
Getty Images
Respiratory Therapist Adel Al Joaid treats Melissa Wartman, a COVID-19 patient
Some researchers believe the latest take on COVID-19 can be attributed to yet unsequenced human strains of the virus.
Getty Images

The process of how NYC’s furry streetwalkers may have helped create the mysterious virus fragments is appalling.

“They’re probably drinking sewer water, and I heard they eat feces, so if there’s any clumps of material in the wastewater, I’m sure they might try to consume it,” study co-author and Queens College virologist John Dennehy told the outlet. “We’ve never detected live virus in the wastewater. But given the volume of wastewater and the number of rats, it’s certainly possible that they’ve gotten infected that way.”

The process by which study authors tested to find signs of the virus in city rats is also quite filthy.

possible rat covid variant
Garbage ripped open by rats sits in front of a Chipotle on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Getty Images
Three rats scavenge for food on the subway platform
Rats are “probably drinking sewer water, and I heard they eat feces,” study co-author John Dennehy said.
Getty Images

“John would go wandering around dark alleys at night and collect rat feces for me and he’d put them in Ziploc bags, label them, and send them to me,” explained Johnson, adding that his “brave” undergraduates plugged their noses while extracting RNA from his intrepidly collected rat poop samples.

While the researchers found no evidence that COVID-19 is circulating through NYC’s rat population, they still believe the vermin are “likely candidates” to originate the next, yet unknown variant of the disease. If that happens, the best possibility will be that the new variant “can only infect rats and loses the ability to infect humans” and the worst that “it spills back into humans and it’s Pi,” a new variant of the coronavirus.


Leave a Comment