Virus Variants Can Infect Mice, Scientists Report

Infected rodents pose no immediate danger to humans, but the research suggests that mutations are helping the coronavirus expand its range of potential hosts.

By Apoorva Mandavilli

Bats, humans, monkeys, minks, big cats and big apes — the coronavirus can make a home in many different animals. But now the list of potential hosts has expanded to include mice, according to an unnerving new study.

Infected rodents pose no immediate risk to people, even in cities like London and New York, where they are ubiquitous and unwelcome occupants of subway stations, basements and backyards.

Still, the finding is worrying. Along with previous work, it suggests that new mutations are giving the virus the ability to replicate in a wider array of animal species, experts said.

“The virus is changing, and unfortunately it’s changing pretty fast,” said Timothy Sheahan, a virologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the new study.

In the study, the researchers introduced the virus into the nasal passages of laboratory mice. The form of the virus first identified in Wuhan, China, cannot infect laboratory mice, nor can B.1.1.7, a variant that has been spreading across much of Europe, the researchers found.

But B.1.351 and P1, the variants discovered in South Africa and Brazil, can replicate in rodents, said Dr. Xavier Montagutelli, a veterinarian and mouse geneticist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who led the study. The research, posted online earlier this month, has not yet been reviewed for publication in a scientific journal.

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