A new study published in the journal Nature describes the first known active COVID-19 infections in white-tailed deer. The samples from the deer, collected before the Delta variant was widespread, shows that they were infected by the same variant that was prevalent in Ohio at the time the samples were collected there.
The research suggests that deer are not only capable being infected by COVID-19, but that they may actually be a regular host for the virus.
Study senior author Andrew Bowman, associate professor of veterinary preventive medicine at The Ohio State University said the research leads toward the idea that we might actually have established a new maintenance host outside humans.
“Based on evidence from other studies, we knew they were being exposed in the wild and that in the lab we could infect them and the virus could transmit from deer to deer. Here, we’re saying that in the wild, they are infected,” explained Professor Bowman.
“And if they can maintain it, we have a new potential source of SARS-CoV-2 coming in to humans. That would mean that beyond tracking what’s in people, we’ll need to know what’s in the deer, too. It could complicate future mitigation and control plans for COVID-19.”
There are many unknowns – how the deer were infected in the first place, and whether the infection can be passed from the deer to other species, including humans.
“The working theory based on our sequences is that humans are giving it to deer, and apparently we gave it to them several times. We have evidence of six different viral introductions into those deer populations. It’s not that a single population got it once and it spread,” said Professor Bowman.
So far, the research indicates the deer suffer infection rates ranging from 13.5 to 70 percent from samples taken across nine states. There are an estimated 30 million deer across the US but sampling purposefully took place near human populations, so more remote deer populations may have lower levels of infection.
By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer