White-tailed deer are carrying COVID-19 at surprisingly high rates, causing concerns about the possibility of mutation and transmission to other animals and humans, according to The New York Times (subscription).
Infected deer: In December 2020, scientists studying white-tailed deer killed by hunters or cars in Iowa found that more than 60% of the sampled deer were infected with the coronavirus. There are more than 30 million white-tailed deer in the U.S.
Why it matters: “If white-tailed deer become a reservoir for the virus, the pathogen could mutate and spread to other animals or back to us. Adaptation in animals is one route by which new variants are likely to emerge.”
What the experts are saying: Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, who studies the connections between human, animal and environmental health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “This is a top concern right now for the United States… if deer were to become established as a North American wildlife reservoir, and we do think they’re at risk of that, there are real concerns for the health of other wildlife species, livestock, pets and even people.”
Unanswered questions: It’s currently unknown how deer are catching the virus, how the virus may mutate in deer and whether deer could pass the virus back to humans.
Little immediate concern: “There is not yet any evidence that deer are infecting people, and for the foreseeable future, experts agreed, humans are far more likely to catch the virus from one another than from anything with hooves.” Hunters who handle deer and those who feed deer from their hands may be at higher risk of contracting the virus from the animals.