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White-tailed deer display high transmission of coronavirus, study finds

Photo of a deer from the USDA.
Jack Bulmer
Photo of a deer.

White-tailed deer across the country have been testing positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture surveilled over 11,000 wild white-tailed deer in a national wildlife disease monitoring study.

Tracking revealed that 31.6% of the deer tested positive for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Additionally, 12.2% of the sampled population presented active infections.

"A lot of viruses do originate in wild animals and then can spill over into human populations," said Sarah Bevins, the assistant coordinator of the National Wildlife Disease Program at the USDA. "That is one of the driving concerns for future pandemics are these zoonotic infections."

The USDA calls white-tailed deer a "reservoir species" because it can host SARS-CoV-2 and potentially spread the virus.

"Additionally, our research shows that SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted from humans to deer, mutated and was potentially transmitted back to humans," said the USDA in a recent press release.

Still, the agency said, "there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans."

Bevins said that while the virus can spread between deer and humans, it is unclear if this transmission would be harmful to humans.

"Are male deer more likely to be affected than females, because of their behavior patterns? Do we see a seasonal variation like we do with Sars-CoV2 in human populations. I think they're all kind of outstanding questions," she said.

The USDA is expanding its surveillance throughout the country to include other cervids such as elk.

Bevins said it's important to understand transmission patterns to be on the forefront of disease prevention in humans, especially in Michigan where white-tail deer are common.

Nevertheless, experts say hunters should practice good hygiene when harvesting and processing animals.

"If you as a hunter kill an animal, which is infected, and you got that animal, and you take out the lungs, where the virus resides, there's a chance that you get infected," Juergen Richt, the director of the Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases at Kansas State University told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
"However, the meat, the venison, is most likely clean and you don't have a high chance to get infected."

"There is no evidence," the USDA reports, "that people can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating meat from an animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, including wild game meat hunted in the United States."

ED NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the extremely low risk to hunters.

Priya Vijayakumar started her Newsroom Internship in January 2023. She is interested in science/health reporting and making the facts more accessible to all!
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