With COVID-19 Prevalent in Deer, Experts Urge Precautions

Carolyn Crist

November 17, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

With deer hunting season underway or starting in states across the U.S., people should wear a mask and gloves when handling deer to prevent coronavirus transmission, experts say.

A recent study by researchers at Penn State University found that more than 80% of the deer sampled during last year's hunting season in counties across Iowa tested positive for COVID-19. Overall, a third of the deer sampled between September 2020 and January 2021 tested positive.

"The findings suggest that white-tailed deer may be a reservoir for the virus to continually circulate and raise concerns about the emergence of new strains that may prove a threat to wildlife and, possibly, to humans," the researchers said in a statement.

The deer were likely infected due to "multiple human-to-deer spillover events and deer-to-deer transmission," they noted.

Studies haven't shown whether deer have infected humans, but public health experts are recommending that hunters and deer handlers consider possible transmission avenues, The Plain Dealer, a Cleveland newspaper, reported.

To limit deer-to-deer transmission, homeowners and hunters should avoid concentrating deer at backyard feeders or in hunting situations, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. The department also urged people to not allow contact between wildlife and domestic animals, including pets and hunting dogs.

Eating venison shouldn't be a concern if people cook the meat thoroughly, the newspaper reported. Until more is known, people should wear a mask and gloves when handling deer.

In the study, Penn State researchers examined 283 deer between December 2020 and January 2021. They took samples from lymph nodes in the head and neck as part of Iowa's chronic wasting disease surveillance program.

"This is the first direct evidence of SARS-CoV-2 virus in any free-living species, and our findings have important implications for the ecology and long-term persistence of the virus," Suresh Kuchipudi, PhD, associate director of the Animal Diagnostics Laboratory at Penn State, said in the statement.

"These include spillover to other free-living or captive animals and potential spillback to human hosts," he said. "Of course, this highlights that many urgent steps are needed to monitor the spread of the virus in deer and prevent spillback to humans."

The research team sequenced genomes from all the positive samples and identified 12 coronavirus lineages. The prominent ones corresponded to the same lineages found in humans at the time.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also inspected 480 samples this year from white-tailed deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. Researchers detected virus antibodies in 33% of samples, according to a statement from the department. The department has confirmed the virus in deer in Ohio as well.

Health officials have recommended that hunters also take precautions while around other people by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask, according to WMTV in Wisconsin.

"If someone comes to deer camp and they have COVID and other folks aren't vaccinated, in that enclosed space with the laughing and good times that are had, the likelihood that those other hunters would be infected is pretty high," Jeff Pothof, MD, an emergency medicine doctor at UW Health, told the news outlet.

"I think the biggest risk to deer hunters is going to be other hunters, not so much the deer," he said.

Sources

The Plain Dealer: "Coronavirus found in deer means hunters should take precautions."

bioRxiv: "Multiple spillovers and onward transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in free-living and captive white-tailed deer."

Penn State University: "Deer may be reservoir for SARS-CoV-2, study finds."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Surveillance Data Shows White-Tailed Deer Exposed to SARS-CoV-2."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Confirmation of COVID-19 in Deer in Ohio."

WMTV: "Hunting health: COVID-19 risks during gun deer season."

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