New research suggests white-tailed deer may be highly susceptible to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, a fact that could potentially complicate efforts to bring the pandemic to an end.
Researchers from Ohio State University took nasal swabs from 360 wild white-tailed deer across nine different areas in Northeast Ohio between January and March of 2021 when cases of COVID-19 were surging in the U.S..
Experts behind the study published last month in Nature detected genetic material from at least three different strains of the virus in more than 35 percent of the deer sampled in six of the locations, meaning 129 deer had either been infected recently or were dealing with an active case.
The study builds on previous research that has found evidence of coronavirus infection among white-tailed deer in Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.
While there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 spread from deer to human, researchers warn circulation of the virus in deer could potentially pose a risk to humans if the animal becomes a reservoir for the virus. Andrew Bowman, the study’s author and professor of veterinary preventive medicine at The Ohio State University, said the fact wild deer can become infected “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,” Bowman said.
“And if they can maintain it, we have a new potential source of SARS-CoV-2 coming into humans. That would mean that beyond tracking what’s in people, we’ll need to know what’s in the deer, too.”
Deer functioning as a viral reservoir for the coronavirus could complicate future mitigation and control plans for COVID-19. Bowman said the virus could mutate in deer, potentially facilitating the transmission of new strains to humans. The virus could also circulate in deer unmutated while it continues to evolve in humans. When humans don’t have immunity to the strains spreading among the deer, those strains could spill back into the human population.
Researchers are not exactly sure how the deer got infected or how the virus behaves in the animals’ body, but suspect they may have been infected by drinking contaminated water, as the virus is shed in human stool and found in wastewater.
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