Researchers find COVID-19 in NYC sewer rats

New Yorkers might have a new reason to detest rats.

Researchers studying mysterious COVID-19 mutations found signs of the virus in the city’s huge rat population – raising concerns the disease could jump from vermin to humans.

A new study by University of Missouri and USDA scientists identified the virus in New York City rats and also found that some species of the notoriously disease-ridden animals are susceptible to the alpha, delta and omicron variants of COVID-19 .

“We were concerned that there was a chance we would find a spillover event if we knew this [COVID-19] has been detected in some other animal species,” said Dr. Julianna Lenoch, USDA APHIS Center national coordinator and co-author of the paper, told The Post.

“In the last two and a half years we have found [the virus] moved from humans to new animal populations,” Lenoch said, pointing to white-tailed deer and mink.

A picture of NYC rats.
Detection of COVID-19 in rodents in NYC has raised concerns about the spread of the disease from vermin to humans.
Christopher Sadowski

Lenoch and her team caught and tested nearly 80 Norwegian rats in Brooklyn and found that just over 16% of them had antibodies that suggested they had been exposed to the virus.

The scientists also used PCR tests on the lungs of the rats they caught and just over 5% tested positive for the virus, although they couldn’t find evidence the species could transmit COVID-19.

The team found that another species of rodent commonly used for research, Sprague-Dawley rats, can be infected with the alpha, delta and omicron variants of COVID-19, underscoring the potential for transmission.

An image of the COVID-19 virus.
Researchers found that over 16% of the rats used were exposed to the virus.

The paper on COVID-19 and rats, published online Monday, has not yet been peer-reviewed.

It was an attempt to identify the origins of a series of mysterious, never-before-seen COVID-19 mutations found in the city’s sewage last year by researchers from the University of Missouri and CUNY’s Queens and Queensborough Colleges.

In addition to the virus mutations, the scientists also found rat DNA in the samples they examined, leading Lenoch and her colleagues to look at the city’s rodent population as a possible source.

A picture of a NYC rat.
According to Fox 5, rat sightings are up 70% this year.
Christopher Sadowski

While the origins of the cryptic COVID-19 mutations in New York City’s sewers remain a mystery, scientists studying the coronavirus in sewage have recently made strides in their ability to detect such variations.

In Wisconsin, researchers were able to trace a mysterious mutation found in the city’s sewage back to a single building with six toilets, according to a paper published Oct. 31.

In their paper, Lenoch and her colleagues called for more research into New York’s troublesome rat population, which drew the ire of Mayor Eric Adams last week when he signed into law a law that forces landlords to use heavy-duty trash cans to reduce infestations .

According to Fox 5, rat sightings are up 70% this year compared to two years ago.

“The rat calls that we usually get were usually from lower-income zones,” said Timothy Wong, senior technician at pest control company MMPC. “Now it’s all over the city, Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Madison Avenue, Park Slope. It’s everywhere now and I think it’s a lot more prevalent than ever before.”