Study finds first transmission of covid in wild white-tail deer

WATCH: Deer population susceptible to COVID
Published: Feb. 9, 2022 at 6:31 PM CST
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Wis. (WBAY) - For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers have found covid-19 spreading in wild animals, specifically white-tail deer.

Wisconsin was not part of the multi-state study, but the DNR said it’s waiting for its own results after sending in dozens of samples this past year.

“We don’t have any results back yet, but hopefully we will soon. They have to be reported back to us if any positives do occur, which is very possible,” said Natanya Hayden, Wildlife Health Section Manager with the DNR.

While the DNR waits for results from the lab, plans are already in place for more testing this year.

“We’ll be doing monitoring throughout the state next year with a minimal of 500 deer that we’re hoping to sample and it may be upwards of 1,000 deer,” said Hayden.

An increase in sampling size will give wildlife professionals a better understanding of how widespread covid-19 is in wild white-tail deer.

“I think the concern with wild deer is that you know, we just don’t have much control over that. You know, the idea of trying to control a wild deer population because they have a specific disease hasn’t been overly successful,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, Chief Quality Officer and Emergency Medicine Physician at UW-Health.

Dr. Pothof said it’s still too early to really know what this spread means when it comes to covid and the potential for new variants.

“The concern would be that the white-tailed deer population becomes this kind of reservoir of COVID-19 that can spread pretty easily amongst the deer that they would give the virus a chance to mutate into a variant that then could at a later date, infect a human that could kick off like another surge with a new variant,” said Dr. Pothof. “We don’t know that this will happen. There isn’t evidence that it’s happened already, but with deer being so easily infected with COVID 19 it’s a theoretical risk that’s out there. And we’ll just have to wait to see if anything becomes of this.”

The idea that a virus can mutate in an animal and then transfer to a human has happened before.

“This isn’t uncommon. I mean, a lot of our flu variants, influenza variants come from poultry. So there definitely is this historical record of zoonotic infection, so infections that are mutating, changing within an animal, and for whatever reason, they get lucky and now are infectious and can actually cause disease in humans. So it’s not necessarily a new thing.” said Dr. Pothof. “Lyme disease is a good example where like the deer doesn’t much care at all that it’s carrying Lyme disease because it doesn’t cause any problems. But that tick then bites us and we get Lyme disease, it can be a big deal.”

As for hunters and the future of deer hunting in the state, Hayden said don’t panic.

“At this time, it’s not believed that COVID would be transferred from hunters processing game meat or consuming game meat,” said Hayden.

While more research is needed, Hayden said the DNR is using the initial data biosecurity at rehab facilities to reduce the spread of covid from humans to deer that are being reintroduced to the wild after rehabilitation.

“Most of those are orphan fawn situations, but again, you know, the more knowledge that we have... the more informed decisions we can make and it’s going to be better for the population overall,” said Hayden.

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