Preliminary research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that white-tailed deer appear to be contracting the coronavirus in the wild.
According to National Geographic, COVID antibodies were found to be present in roughly 40% of the deer tested between January and March of 2021.
As part of an ongoing study, blood samples were taken from more than 600 deer in Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania over the last decade. Of the 152 samples taken in the early part of 2021, 60 of them had Covid antibodies present in their blood streams.
An additional 3 deer tested in January of 2020 also had the antibodies. One positive test from a deer in 2019 is believed to be a false-positive.
White-tails are the most common deer species on the continent, with roughly 30 million of them spread across every state but Alaska. None of the deer studied displayed signs of illness, which researchers believe means the deer had asymptomatic Covid infections.
The USDA issued a statement reassuring that risk of animals spreading the virus to humans is considered low. However, there is some concern that if deer are acting a reservoir for the virus that it could facilitate further evolution of the virus into more transmissible variants.
Further research has determined that deer are susceptible to coronavirus and are capable of passing it on to each other. That study was conducted in a laboratory though, so this revelation is the first indication that deer are capable of contracting the virus in nature and not just a lab.
The only other species of wildlife that are known to have contracted the virus in the wild are minks, a species of fish eating weasel. However, cats, dogs, otters, lions, tigers, leopards, gorillas, and cougars have all contracted Covid either in captivity or zoos.
Because there is no evidence that the virus is having a detrimental effect on deer, or that virus is capable of making the jump from deer to humans, the USDA has reaffirmed that there is little increased worry for folks who plan on hunting white-tailed deer this fall.
According to the USDA there is no evidence that you can contract the coronavirus by eating wild game meat. The best measures for preventing the virus from being an issue are consistent with best practices for preparing wild game meat anyways, including properly cooking and storing meat and cleaning/disinfecting all knives, surfaces, and equipment used to process the meat.
Researchers are still unsure about how deer got infected in the first place though. Speculation includes close contact with infected humans or contraction through water where infected mink were present.