COVID hit deer population, generating mutation passed on to humans

Officials said they sampled more than 11,000 deer and detected the virus in 12% of them, but even more had antibodies.
Deer in a field
Posted at 12:25 PM, Jul 14, 2023

COVID-19 likely spread widely among the white-tailed deer population during the pandemic, according to the Department of Agriculture. 

Officials said they sampled more than 11,000 deer and detected the virus in 12% of them. However, researchers found antibodies from the virus in 31% of the deer, meaning they were previously infected. 

The agency says that the virus was transmitted from humans to deer before mutating. Officials believe the deer could have then transmitted the mutated virus back to humans. 

“Deer regularly interact with humans and are commonly found in human environments — near our homes, pets, wastewater, and trash,” said Dr. Xiu-Feng Wan, a professor at the University of Missouri who participated in the research. “The potential for SARS-CoV-2, or any zoonotic disease, to persist and evolve in wildlife populations can pose unique public health risks.”

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Health officials note that they are always monitoring for new variants that can lead to severe outcomes in humans. However, they said there is no evidence that the mutating strain of COVID-19 from deer played any significant role in causing mass outbreaks. 

"This research is helping us better understand how a disease that can affect both people and animals is spreading and evolving in the real world, and better equipping us to deal with future infectious disease outbreaks," said Dr. Ria Ghai, a researcher for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

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