A group of researchers charged by New York City with scouring human sewage for signs of the coronavirus — and its many mutating variants — made a startling discovery in April.
After months of testing and re-testing, they found four combinations of COVID mutations that, when compared to a global database of more than 2.5 million sequenced variants, had not been seen before. The four variants are at least somewhat antibody-resistant, which could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, the researchers found.
The team of virologists and microbiologists from CUNY’s Queens and Queensborough colleges, the New School and the University of Missouri have been studying sewage from the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants since June 2020, collecting samples in plastic bottles once a week and analyzing them to see concentrations of the virus. Since January, the researchers have gone a step further, analyzing the sewage for different COVID-19 variants.
The data is preliminary and has not been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal. Some outside experts say it’s far too early to raise alarms. But there’s one troubling possibility about where the new sewer mutations are coming from, according to a preprint study published by the researchers on Thursday.
As with other animals, COVID-19 could be infecting dogs and rats, leading to new mutations and an outbreak in New York City’s sewers. While animal-to-human transmission of the virus is exceedingly rare, it has been seen in the U.S. in minks.
‘Do It Ourselves’
Despite the potential implications, the researchers say the presentation last month of their findings to city officials earned a muted response.
They were told they could investigate further, but the city’s Department of Environmental Protection initially offered no additional funding or support for their efforts.
“The city officials basically told us if we wanted to do any kind of surveillance of the rats we would have to do it ourselves,” Dr. Marc Johnson, a virologist at the University of Missouri, wrote in a June 9 email obtained through an open-records request by the Documenting COVID-19 project. “They had zero willingness to help explore this potential public health risk.”
In a statement, city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene officials said they had reviewed the team’s findings, which they called “preliminary,” and were working to determine the origin of the mutations.
The city noted that there have been no confirmed infections of rats. They pointed to a study in Antwerp, Belgium, last winter that found no rats were infected with the virus, though that study left open the possibility that mutations could leave rodents susceptible to the virus.
“There are various possible explanations for the mutations identified and we will discuss theories with scientific and government partners,” wrote Patrick Gallahue, a Department of Health spokesperson. “One thing we do know from clinical testing and surveillance is that COVID-19 is circulating in NYC and the best way for New Yorkers to protect themselves and others is to get vaccinated.”
When contacted by the Documenting COVID-19 project and THE CITY about their study, the researchers said they are barred from speaking publicly.
But the preliminary wastewater findings, coupled with the initial reluctance by city agencies to investigate reflects New York’s scaling back of resources aimed at combating the virus, at a time when evolving variants and case rates in the city and across the country are climbing, experts say.
“There’s so much we don’t know about this virus,” said Dr.Kartik Chandran, a professor of environmental engineering at Columbia…