Scientists Found 18 Unknown Viruses in New York Rats

Photo of author

( — October 19, 2014)  — A team from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that New York City’s rats are hosts to at least 18 new viruses never before encountered and unknown to science.

“Everybody’s looking all over the world, in all sorts of exotic places, including us. But nobody’s looking right under our noses,” Ian Lipkin, a professor of neurology and pathology at Columbia, told the New York Times.

Scientists analyzed 133 rats that had a variety of pathogens, according to an initial report published in MBio magazine on Tuesday.

Among well-known pathogens, like the food-borne disease Salmonella, researchers isolated Seoul Hantavirus, which has never been seen before in New York and at least 18 new pathogens completely unknown to science.

“We identified a wide range of known and novel viruses from groups that contain important human pathogens,” the researchers said in their study.

Dr. Lipkin, has been working on extracting pathogens from infected rats since 1990s. In 2012, his team decided to test New York rats.

It turns out that luring a rat into a trap is more difficult in New York than in any other city. Sometimes he and his team had to “bait traps and just leave them open for a week,” Cadhla Firth, Dr. Lipkin’s colleague, told The New York Times.

“Rats are sentinels for human disease.” Lipkin said. They dwell in all parts and levels of New York City and they collect microbes and amplify them, he said.

Once the scientists caught the rats, they tested their blood, urine, feces and tissues and extracted DNA from samples in order to get pathogens.

Luckily, scientists didn’t find one of the most hazardous germs that infects rats in other countries: Yersinia pestis, which causes bubonic plague.

Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, finds the results of the research “shocking and surprising” and are a “recipe for a public health nightmare”.

David Patrick, the director of the School of Population and Public Health, at the University of British Columbia, thinks that the findings are groundbreaking, because now scientists can study and describe those viruses in detail, which is a good thing.

New York is ranked fourth on Orkin’s list of Rattiest American Cities, behind Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC.