Why scientists are concerned about COVID-19 in the deer population

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – In December 2020, scientists discovered that the coronavirus was infecting large numbers of white-tailed deer in Iowa. When scientists sampled unlucky deer that were killed by hunters or cars, they found that over 60% of deer sampled were infected with COVID-19.

“I was very surprised,” said Kendra Findley, chief epidemiologist for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. “It’s surprising when you have this leap from a human disease to an animal species as well.”

Studies prove that deer can contract the virus very easily. Scientists fear that the animal could potentially become a reservoir for the virus and be a potential source of new variants.

“You start worrying that a virus that can jump between different species, like COVID-19, will create another variant and that’s the problem,” Findley said.

Infections in deer, which show very few signs of illness, are difficult to detect and contain. There are approximately 30 million deer that roam the United States. The US Department of Agriculture has confirmed infections in 15 states – Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Minnesota, New Jersey and Virginia.

Research suggests deer pick up the virus from humans and then pass it on to other deer. However, there is good news.

“There is no evidence at this point that deer transmit COVID to humans,” Findley said. “

But, scientists found that some deer were re-infected with the Omnicron variant. Widespread and longer-term circulation of the virus in deer would give the virus an opportunity to mutate and allow a new variant to spread to humans or even other animals.

“It’s disheartening,” Findley said. “We are so tired. We’ve been in this pandemic loop for two years and I think most people would love to have some normalcy back in their lives. We are fighting it in the human population and it is already mutating again and again within the human population. And now, we must consider combating it within the animal population which is of concern.

Even though deer can’t transmit the virus to humans, that doesn’t mean the virus won’t evolve.

“If he can jump from a human to a deer, he can come back [ to humans] but it’s not that easy,” Findley said.

This is partly explained by the fact that COVID-19 is not transmitted by blood but by respiratory droplets. How humans transmit the virus to deer is unknown. It can be direct, like someone feeding a deer, or indirectly through sewage.

Researchers recommend hunters take additional measures when harvesting deer, such as avoiding the head, lungs, and digestive tract. Hunters are also encouraged to wear gloves, masks and get vaccinated

Scientists say the most effective way to prevent deer from becoming a reservoir for the virus is to curb its spread in humans.

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