Wisconsin DNR testing whether hunter-killed deer have COVID

Do white-tailed deer in Wisconsin have the COVID-19 virus, too? Work is underway to find out.

Samples are being collected this winter from hunter-killed deer to determine whether, as in at least two other states, the animals carry the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

The work is being conducted by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources employees who have volunteered to sample deer they harvest during the holiday gun hunt or late bow seasons.

It represents the start of Wisconsin’s participation in a multi-state, multi-year effort led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division to sample whitetails for COVID-19.

Deer are known to be susceptible to coronaviruses and studies last year in Iowa and Ohio found 33% and 36%, respectively, of animals tested were positive for COVID-19.

COVID-19 antibodies were detected in 40% of white-tailed deer sampled in 2021 in four states. Circle size indicates the relative number of samples tested, color intensity represents relative seroprevalence, and numbers are county-level seroprevalence.

The researchers in both cases suggested there was spillover of COVID-19 from humans to deer with deer-to-deer transmission also occurring. Separate work also showed antibodies to the virus in 40% of deer tested in four states.

To date there is no proof the virus sickens deer or can be transmitted from deer to humans. But scientists say much is yet to be learned and worry about the potential for the nation’s 30 million deer to act as a reservoir for an evolving virus and a source for human infection.

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