COVID-19 spreading in US deer population, experts concerned of transmission to humans

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The coronavirus has been spreading significantly in white-tailed deer in the US, leading to concerns among experts about animal-to-human transmission of the virus, a new study has found.

Veterinarians at the Pennsylvania State University in the US have found active COVID-19 infections in at least 30 percent of white-tailed deer across the state of Iowa throughout 2020, the study entitled ‘Multiple spillovers and onward transmission of SARS-Cov-2 in free-living and captive White-tailed deer’ revealed.

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The findings were also verified by federal scientists at the National Veterinary Services Laboratories and agree with a previous study that was published in August that showed 40 percent of the deer population in the Midwest and Northeast regions of the US to have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection.

Experts are now concerned that the animals could be carrying the virus indefinitely. They worry that this could cause animal-to-human transmission of the virus.

“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,” co-author of the study and veterinary virologist at Penn State University Suresh Kuchipudi, told NPR news.

“And so it becomes more and more complicated to manage or even eradicate the virus,” he continued.

“If we want to continue to be proactive about emerging variants – and not be surprised by one that suddenly pops up – there’s an urgent need to continue to monitor SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife, especially in animals that could serve as a reservoir, like the deer,” said Kuchipudi.

Microbiologist at Penn State and co-leader of the study Vivek Kapur said that it was “surprising” how many positive COVID-19 cases were detected through examining the lymph nodes of almost 300 deer, 100 of which were wild.

“So these deer were either roadkill or free-living deer that hunters had killed (to eat),” said Kapur.

More research needed

When an animal population becomes a reservoir, it “complicates control strategies” for the virus, Diel explained, adding that it was “still not known” whether white-tailed deer are “in fact a reservoir of these viruses.”

He said that the research was unclear about whether these deer could actually “transmit the virus and sustain the transmission in the field,” or if they could infect humans.

“Those are all very important questions that are still unanswered,” he said.

While the study focused on the deer population of Iowa, it stated that “there is no reason to believe that the same thing isn’t happening in other states where deer are present.”

According to Wildlife Control Information, there are approximately 25 million deer in the US alone and that the number is consistently rising.

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