It’s not necessarily unusual to find the same disease in humans and animals. But the results of a survey of deer conducted last year were remarkable.
“Gobsmacked is the word that we’ve been using. It was quite shocking overall that we have this high level of presence of viral RNA in deer tissue," said Vivek Kapur, an infectious disease expert with Penn St University.
He was one of the researchers on a study of the white-tailed deer population in Iowa.
80% of the deer surveyed from the end of November to January were positive for COVID-19.
“Between 50 and 100 fold higher than what was present in humans at that time,” said Kapur.
“A virus when it finds more than one host and circulates that creates much more opportunities for the virus to evolve,” said Suresh Kuchipudi.
He is a partner on the study also from Penn St. His point is with deer. COVID-19 now has an unchecked population to spread and evolve.
The U.S. is right in the middle of deer hunting season, which makes you wonder if hunters may be at risk of being exposed to the virus.
“Any infected animal could potentially to other susceptible animals. In this case, deer could, in theory, transfer the virus back to humans. However, we do not have that evidence yet, but it is a possibility always,” said Kuchipudi.
“What we’ve been telling hunters is that this should not be something that they should be concerned about to the point that it keeps them from hunting this year,” said Tyler Harms, a scientist with the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources who was also involved with the study.
While the DNR isn’t telling hunters not to hunt this year, that doesn’t mean it’s saying throw caution to the wind.
“We have been telling them to take some basic precautions if they do harvest the deer, like wearing gloves and make sure they’re thoroughly washing their hands and equipment after they finish processing the animal,” said Harms.
Kapur agrees that awareness for hunters might be the most important factor to stop the disease from jumping back to humans.
“It’s important as well to recognize that hunters realize that wild animals do carry a lot of different risks, and hunters, in general, go in with that awareness. This is the one thing they were not yet aware of, and hence making them aware is what we would like to do,” he said.