Do You Actually Need to Worry About COVID-19 Spreading in Deer?

Do You Actually Need to Worry About COVID-19 Spreading in Deer?

by Sue Jones
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Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’ve heard stories of animals who have caught the illness, from zoo animals including tigers and lions to household pets like cats. But it’s a common and native U.S. species that has some scientists worried these days when it comes to COVID-19: white-tailed deer.

As NPR reports, several studies have suggested that deer are susceptible to the virus. Last year computer models suggested the virus could easily enter deer cells. More recently a survey found that 40% of wild Midwest and Northeast white-tailed deer had antibodies for COVID-19. And now a study published online last week found that at least 30% of the nearly 300 Iowa deer studied had active COVID-19 infections from April through December 2020. From November 23 of last year to January 10 of this year, specifically, around 80% of the deer’s samples were positive for the virus. (For what it’s worth, this paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.)

Does it actually matter if deer are susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus? As it turns out, it might. 

“If the virus has opportunities to find an alternate host besides humans, which we would call a reservoir, that will create a safe haven where the virus can continue to circulate even if the entire human population becomes immune,” Suresh Kuchipudi, B.V.Sc., M.V.Sc., Ph.D., veterinary virologist at Penn State and coauthor of the Iowa study, told NPR. That could allow new strains of the virus to crop up and potentially spread to humans. “And so it becomes more and more complicated to manage or even eradicate the virus,” Dr. Kuchipudi said.

There’s also a concern that those mutations could make COVID-19 vaccines less effective, as we’ve seen to an extent with the delta variant. In 2020, COVID-19 outbreaks at mink farms in Denmark led the country to kill 17 million minks over similar concerns.

Plus, experts worry about whether the virus can spread easily from deer to other animals. “Now the question is: Can the virus spill back from deer to humans? Or can deer transmit the virus effectively to grazing livestock? We don’t know the answers to those questions yet, but if they are true, they’re obviously concerning,” Linda Saif, M.S., Ph.D., a virologist at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, told NPR.

While these are major concerns for the greater public health, on an individual level, the main risk from COVID-19-infected deer would theoretically be from having close contact with the animals. Thankfully, at press time, this doesn’t seem to be that likely. “Based on the available information to date, the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to people is considered to be low,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“There are no documented cases of humans becoming infected from white-tailed deer,” according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, which adds, “At present, there is no known risk of COVID exposure associated with cleaning deer or eating cooked venison.”

However, the organization emphasizes that if there’s a chance you could be in close contact with deer (like if you’re a hunter or work with raw deer meat), you can take steps to reduce transmission risk similar to those for human-to-human contact, including handwashing, masking, and getting vaccinated.

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife adds that it would be ideal to “process your game outdoors or in a well-ventilated location” and avoid “the head, lungs, and digestive tract.” Other standard best practices for processing game also still apply, such as not handling or eating animals that seem sick or are found dead, minimizing contact with brain and spinal tissue, being careful with knives to avoid cuts, washing hands before and after handling meat, sanitizing tools with bleach, and cooking any meat to an internal temperature of at least 165°F.


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