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Hodder receives federal grant to study evolution of COVID-19 variants among white-tailed deer

SARS-CoV-2 has been found in West Virginia white tail deer as well as in deer populations in other states and Canada, however, the significance of these findings is unclear. A study conducted by the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (WVCTSI) may shed some light on the issue.

A $768,858 grant has been awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to Dr. Sally Hodder, WVCTSI director, associate vice president for clinical and translational science at West Virginia University, and Chancellor’s Preeminent Scholar Chair, to evaluate Sars-CoV-2 variant evolution in white-tailed deer and potential spillover to human populations in West Virginia.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, is primarily spread from person-to-person through close contact. However, evidence of the virus in susceptible animal species raises concerns for potential variant evolution in animal reservoirs. Unknown is the extent of new SARS-CoV-2 variation among white-tail deer and whether or not there is evidence for crossover to humans.

“The unpredictability of spillover events and the potential risks, if any, posed to humans make this an important study in West Virginia where the white-tailed deer population is significant,” explained. Dr. Hodder. “This study will help researchers better understand the interaction between humans, wild animals, and the SARS-Cov-2 virus.”

Building on an existing infrastructure, investigators will use a combination of approaches to study variant prevalence, changing patterns, and evidence for deer to human crossover.

Wes Kimble, director of research data analytics with WVCTSI, and Dr. Brad Price, co-director of WVCTSI’s Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design core, were part of the team collecting samples from across West Virginia.

"The project began by collecting SARS-CoV-2 isolates from whitetail samples in Boone, Grant, and Monongalia Counties," said Kimble.

"The research team is then able to apply geospatial (developed by Dr. Brian Hendricks and his team) and phylogenetic analytic techniques to these samples," said Price. "We are also able to measure the human impact of SARS-CoV-2 in deer by comparing these sequences with sequences from individual human samples and from wastewater."

Dr. Tim Driscoll, associate professor in the WVU Department of Biology, and Dr. Gordon Smith, Stuart M. and Joyce N. Robbins Distinguished Professor with the WVU School of Public Health and Adjunct Professor in the WVU School of Medicine, lead the wastewater assessment of SARS-CoV-2.

“White-tailed deer are known to carry SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, although it is not clear how they acquire it,” said Driscoll. “In this work we are comparing SARS-CoV-2 genomes isolated from white-tailed deer with viral genomes found during routine community wastewater testing from the same geographic region. These comparisons will allow us to track the origins of COVID in deer, and gain insight into how often this virus may be spilling over into new animal hosts.”

Since the fall of 2021, WVCTSI researchers have been identifying and tracking COVID-19 variants circulating in West Virginia in hopes of preparing for and better understanding future COVID-19 outbreaks. Research entailed sequencing COVID-19 samples to understand the epidemiology of COVID-19 variants in West Virginia as well as will creating and validating new machine-learning tools and geographic information systems (GIS) analyses to maximize the use of localized information on case counts, testing trends, emerging variants and vaccinations. In doing so, WVCTSI researchers are well positioned to evaluate further COVID-19 variant emergence, progression, and impact on West Virginia populations as well as to evaluate COVID-19 evolution in white-tailed deer.

WVCTSI Background

WVCTSI is funded by an IDeA Clinical and Translational grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (U54GM104942) to support the mission of building clinical and translational research infrastructure and capacity to impact health disparities in West Virginia.