Local hunters are being advised to take extra precautions this season when encountering white-tailed deer, which appear to be serving as reservoirs for COVID-19.
A recent study conducted by wildlife officials in Iowa found alarmingly high rates of the deer were actively infected or carrying antibodies from a previous infection.
According to the study, co-authored by researchers from Penn State University, nearly 80% of deer sampled from April 2020 through Jan. 2021 were infected.
Though conducted in Iowa, the study is worrisome, says Knox County Health Officer Dr. Alan Stewart.
“It does appear the deer act as a reservoir for the virus and that — and what we do about it — is a little disconcerting,” he said.
Though it’s still unclear how exactly the animals contracted the virus, researchers say the specific genomic sequencing and variants carried by the deer samples indicate they contracted it from humans.
Stewart says the development makes tackling the global pandemic more troubling.
“It’s a little frightening,” he said.
The fear, he added, is not so much that deer will then easily spread the virus back to humans — as there’s little evidence to suggest such a scenario at this point — but rather that the animals can act as hosts for the virus to continue mutating.
“We have to be alert for any animal that acts as a reservoir — not just in how contagious it is to humans, but that it’s another place for the virus to mutate,” Stewart said, citing HIV and AIDS as an example of a virus that mutated from monkeys to chimpanzees before eventually making that jump from animals to humans.
That sort of mutation and cross-species transmission isn’t uncommon either, experts say, noting that everything from measles and Ebola to influenza have been contracted by humans from animals.
“If you want to look at a model for this sort of thing, you look at influenza,” Stewart said, noting that the virus moved to people via birds and pigs.
Though frightening, and possibly a long daunting road, the health officer adds that, like influenza, there are ways forward to help humanity cope with another lingering virus, thanks to modern medicine.
“We have the vaccine, we have boosters, and we’ll have a pill similar to Tamiflu,” he said.
Though the first major study of the deer population came out of Iowa, another recent study by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found COVID antibodies in a number of free-roaming deer in each of the states where samples were collected, including Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and in neighboring Illinois.
Currently, there have been no studies released on the deer population of Indiana, but given the high rate of infection in Iowa and other Midwest states, it’s likely the problem exits here, too, said Stewart.
But, “the risk of catching the virus from the animal, I think would be fairly small,” he says. “Not zero, so I think we have to be aware, but still small.”
Stewart, as well as entities like the USDA are urging hunters to be particularly cautious this season, asking hunters to follow some basic safety tips.
They ask hunters to keep domestic animals, such as hunting dogs, away from the deer and to avoid animals that may appear sick.
Additionally, hunters are strongly encouraged to wear gloves and masks when field dressing the deer, avoid eating, drinking or smoking during the harvesting, and sanitize hands, knives and workstations thoroughly when finished.