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The COVID connection: Humans and deer

While there’s no evidence yet of deer to human transmission, it’s possible. And that could complicate the path out of the pandemic.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — While we’re all watching how the pandemic is impacting humans, researchers across the country are finding COVID-19 is rampant among another species: deer.

And that could ultimately put us at risk for new mutations.

Researchers with Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine first asked the question during last winter’s surge: Could animals around us be catching COVID too?

“The fact that the virus likely came out of animals, and then entered into humans, certainly entered the idea of maybe it could end up back in another animal species,” said Dr. Andrew Bowman, an associate professor.

Dr. Bowman says in January 2021, they started testing animals – pets, farm animals, and those in the wild around us. The most interesting results came from Northeast Ohio, where Cleveland Metroparks Natural Resources division tested 360 dead deer, culled as part of its management program in Cuyahoga and Medina counties.

“We sampled those deer and, and about a third of them tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19,” he said. “That was really the first time that we've detected the virus in a free-ranging species and, and not just Ohio, but in the world.”

The peer-reviewed results, just published by the scientific journal Nature, show showed deer to deer transmission, as well as at least six so-called “spillover” events where deer caught the virus from us. 

“That's the question we've scratching our heads on, because like I said, it didn't happen once. It happened at least six times. And probably more than that. The question is, how's that happening?” said Dr. Bowman. “We certainly could have people contaminating the environment that deer living in, whether that's contaminated wastewater, trash, feeding stations. It's really unclear how would happen.”

While there’s no evidence yet of deer to human transmission, it’s possible. And that could complicate the path out of the pandemic. “Any animal host becomes infected and they're able to maintain it, that changes SARS-CoV-2, right? Forever…If we don't continue to look at the animals, we may have variants arising in animal populations that then threaten human health,” said Bowman.

“To me, it's another fascinating question of who's giving what to whom,” he added. “We just have to remember, we're not the only species living in this environment. We're sharing not only the landscape, but our pathogens move between species as well.”

Other research in nearby states is backing the findings – and expanding. The American Rescue Plan provided $6 million dollars for the USDA to study coronavirus in white-tailed deer now happening in some 30 states

“We have ongoing surveillance piggy-backing on this finding. We expanded deer surveillance across the state of Ohio,” said Dr. Bowman. Those results are likely to come in the spring. Dr. Bowman says as we humans see omicron spike, animals could too.

Even when infected in labs under experimental conditions, deer don’t seem to show clinical signs of illness.

“I'm not gonna be surprised by that,” he said. “What's the prevalence now? Have things changed in the deer population? And what's the transmissibility from deer to humans? Questions we really don't have answers to at this point.”

USDA Public Affairs Specialist Tanya Espinosa told 3News that threat of spillover while low, is real, and part of the USDA funding will create an early warning system to alert public health about emerging disease in animals to prevent or limit the next outbreak.

It’s smart to avoid concentrating deer at backyard feeders or in hunting situations. Hunters, or others in close contact with deer, might consider masking, or using other PPE until we understand the risk better. The USDA says properly handled and cooked venison should be safe to eat.

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