COVID-19 found in 15% of tested deer in Massachusetts
COVID-19 found in 15% of tested deer in Massachusetts

COVID-19 found in 15% of tested deer in Massachusetts

State wildlife officials tell GBH News that COVID-19 antibodies have been found in 15 percent of white-tailed deer tested in Massachusetts as part of a USDA-led study.

COVID-19 has been detected in deer in other states, but the new study provides the first confirmation that Massachusetts deer have been infected with the virus. Of the 558 Massachusetts deer tested so far, COVID-19 antibodies were detected in 86 samples. While deer-to-human transmission has only occurred in one documented case, the experts’ primary concern is that widespread infection in the deer population offers additional sites where the virus can mutate.

It is highly unlikely that most people can be infected by a deer. Any transfer from deer to human is likely to occur through the air, which would require close contact, as when one human transmits the virus to another, says Martin Feehan, the state’s deer and elk biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Feehan said there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread by consuming meat.

“Obviously, any kind of transmission that would occur from deer to humans if that happened would be incredibly rare,” Feehan said. “For the most part, every time people interact with deer, it’s the outdoor environment that really should minimize much of that risk.”

Most deer tested for COVID-19 were hunted during the first week of the shotgun season, which begins the weekend after Thanksgiving. And USDA genetic sequencing confirmed that two samples were the delta variant – while samples tested weeks later from New York were omicron, Feehan said.

However, experts say that deer infections give rise to concern about the possible development of new variants in the animals, which could potentially then be reintroduced into humans. Some studies of COVID-19 in deer have found a large number of mutations of the virus.

“Every time a lot of viruses float around in other species, it can change in ways that are very difficult to predict,” said Andrew Lover, an epidemiologist at UMass Amherst. “And while it’s quite unlikely that it will run back to humans again – if or when it does, it could be a very, very different virus.”

However, a Canadian study found a human case of COVID-19 with mutations that indicated that the infection had come from a deer. NPR reported Vaccines still seemed to provide strong protection against that variant.

“One of the reasons why it is so important to get control of a virus like this is that the more people or animals it infects, the more opportunities and the faster it can develop, and the more concerned we are about variants. . ” said Elinor Karlsson, director of vertebrate genomics at the Broad Institute. But so far, she said, the known variants like delta and omicron appear to come from human mutations. “There is as yet no evidence that we have mutations that evolve into other species that can infect humans.”

Other species that have not had the same level of study may also be infected, she added. Researchers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University have tested animals from livestock, wildlife and zoos for the virus and say they have seen rare cases due to human exposure.

“I think if the deer are telling us anything at this point, then it is that in order to understand that kind of virus, we need to test outside humans and also look at the animal populations, much more than we are now, said Karlsson.

“To me, perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the whole story is how do deer get infected?” she added. “I think understanding it will help us really understand a new kind of dimension of risk history here.”

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