COVID antibodies found in up to 40% of US deer population, study finds

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Oh, deer — Bambi never had these problems.

There’s new evidence that wildlife are a potential breeding ground for COVID-19, where it could continue to evolve despite control efforts in humans.

Between January and March 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tested 385 white-tailed deer found throughout the states of Michigan, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, where they detected antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 in 40% of the population, both National Geographic and Nature reported on Monday. An additional three samples from January 2020 also showed antibodies.

The data was collected as part of the department’s regularly scheduled surveillance of white-tailed deer, the most widely distributed deer species in the US for a total of approximately 30 million individuals. Their new report, available to read on bioRxiv while awaiting peer-review, also said the infected deer appeared to be asymptomatic.

“Given the percentage of samples in this study that had detectable antibodies, as well as the high numbers of white-tailed deer throughout the United States and their close contact with people, it is likely that deer in other states have also been exposed to the virus,” a spokesperson for the USDA also told Nature.

Researchers hypothesized that the deer outbreak could be thanks to humans, as “multiple activities could bring deer into contact with people,” they wrote, such as field research, tourism and hunting. Mink were also implicated as a potential source.

This is the first study to show that deer are passing COVID-19 to each other in the wild. So far, the only other animal known to have contracted SARS-CoV-2 in nature are mink. Scientists have previously detected the virus in a number of animals including cats, dogs, otters, lions, tigers, leopards and gorillas — all of which originated while in captivity.

Scientists worry that wild animals could become a “reservoir” for the burgeoning virus, and potentially undermine public health efforts to control the virus in humans. Yet, the USDA told Nat Geo in a statement, “The risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people is considered low,” and cited “no evidence” that humans can be infected via eating contaminated meat.

Dr. Srinand Sreevatsan, a Michigan State University veterinary medicine professor, told Bridge Michigan that hunters should use “good hygiene” and wear a mask while handling and processing the carcass.

“Even if the virus is not present in the deer, there are other things that you can get from deer,” Sreevatsan said. “So it’s best to have good hygienic practice.”

While respiratory transmission between human and animal remains a possibility, wild deer are a lot easier to avoid than people. As zoonotic diseases expert Daniel Bausch told Nat Geo, “For humans, our infinitely greater problem is spread from other humans.”

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