USDA Research Reveals COVID-19 Transmission Between Humans and White-Tailed Deer

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has released research findings indicating the widespread transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, within the U.S. white-tailed deer population. The study, which involved surveillance of over 11,000 white-tailed deer, suggests that the virus may have been transmitted from humans to deer, resulting in mutation and potential transmission back to humans. These findings raise concerns about white-tailed deer acting as a “reservoir species,” where the virus can persist and potentially evolve.

While it is still being studied, there is currently no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus to humans. APHIS continues its research to address critical animal and public health questions related to SARS-CoV-2. Dr. Mike Watson, APHIS’ acting Administrator, emphasizes the need for further analysis using a One Health approach to understand the risks to wildlife conservation and public health associated with the ongoing circulation of the disease in wildlife.

APHIS is currently in the second year of its research, expanding disease surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 to other members of the deer family and additional states, territories, and tribes. In the first year of sampling, the virus was detected in 12.2% white-tailed deer, with 31.6% showing antibodies indicating previous exposure. APHIS’ collaboration with state wildlife agencies and other partners aims to strengthen the nation’s ability to detect and respond to emerging diseases in animals.

A recent study by APHIS, the University of Missouri, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted from humans to white-tailed deer at least 106 times in the United States. The study highlights the potential public health risks associated with zoonotic diseases persisting and evolving in wildlife populations.

APHIS is actively conducting various projects to understand the behavior of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in different animals and its transmission between animals and humans. The agency’s strategic framework focuses on preventing, detecting, investigating, and responding to SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging diseases that could threaten humans and animals. Collaborative efforts between human, animal, and environmental health groups under the One Health approach contribute to a better understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and the early detection of diseases.

Reference: “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in free-ranging white-tailed deer in the United States” by Aijing Feng, Sarah Bevins, Jeff Chandler, Thomas J. Deliberto, Ria Ghai, Kristina Lantz, Julianna Lenoch, Adam Retchless, Susan Shriner, Cynthia Y. Tang, Suxiang Sue Tong, Mia Torchetti, Anna Uehara and Xiu-Feng Wan, 10 July 2023, Nature Communications. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39782-x

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