Date of this Version
Nature Communications | ( 2023) 14:5105
The zoonotic origin of the COVID-19 pandemic virus highlights the need to fill the vast gaps in our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 ecology and evolution in non-human hosts. Here, we detected that SARS-CoV-2 was introduced from humans into white-tailed deer more than 30 times in Ohio, USA during November 2021-March 2022. Subsequently, deer-to-deer transmission persisted for 2–8 months, disseminating across hundreds of kilometers. Newly developed Bayesian phylogenetic methods quantified how SARS-CoV-2 evolution is not only three-times faster in white-tailed deer compared to the rate observed in humans but also driven by different mutational biases and selection pressures. The long-term effect of this accelerated evolutionary rate remains to be seen as no critical phenotypic changes were observed in our animal models using white-tailed deer origin viruses. Still, SARS-CoV-2 has transmitted in white-tailed deer populations for a relatively short duration, and the risk of future changes may have serious consequences for humans and livestock.
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