COLUMBUS, Ohio — Researchers at The Ohio State University have discovered at least three COVID-19 variants in free-ranging white-tailed deer throughout six northeast Ohio locations, a study shows.
As part of the study, researchers took nasal swabs from 360 white-tailed deer in nine northeast Ohio locations. Using PCR testing, scientists found genetic material from at least three different COVID-19 strains in 129 deer.
Based on genomic sequencing of the samples collected between January and March of this year, researchers also determined that variants infecting wild deer matched strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that had been prevalent in Ohio COVID-19 patients at the time.
The samples were collected before the delta variant was widespread, according to a release from the university. Scientists said the variant was not detected in the deer.
Researchers are testing more samples to check for new variants as well as older variants, the continued presence of which would suggest the virus can set up shop and survive in this species.
Andrew Bowman, associate professor of veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State, said that researchers knew deer were being exposed to COVID-19 in the wild based on evidence from previous studies.
Bowman said the most recent study shows the deer are actually being infected and that this could mean there may have a new potential source of COVID-19 coming to humans.
"The fact that wild deer can become infected leads toward the idea that we might actually have established a new maintenance host outside humans," said Bowman.
Bowman said it could complicate future mitigation and control plans for COVID-19.
Researchers still don't know how the deer became infected and whether they can infect humans and other species. Details about how the virus behaves in the animals' body and whether it's a transient or long-term infection are also unknown.