A recently-published study from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) found that a sizable portion of the sample group of a wild white-tailed deer population observed had COVID-19 antibodies.

They compared samples from deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania collected during the pandemic to samples from the same population collected pre-pandemic in this study to confirm that these antibodies are new to the population. While the test results were different from state to state, they found overall that 33% of the sampled deer had COVID-19 antibodies, which is evidence of exposure to the virus.

It is important to note that while the study found evidence of antibodies, which means these deer were exposed to the virus and their immune system reacted to that exposure, it does not necessarily mean that these deer became ill. This particular study looked for evidence of exposure, and didn't look into COVID-19 illness in deer, but they have no known incidents of deer showing symptoms of infection.

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In information provided to Madison, Wisconsin's WISC-TV, the assistant director of the USDA's APHIS research center explained that “The fact that we saw antibodies in deer in all four states would suggest to us that the exposure is probably happening on a much broader geographic scale".

While he did say that this data should not be used to draw specific conclusions about deer populations in other states, he did explain that this could mean that spread is occurring at some level among wild deer populations in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In a Q&A document provided by the USDA's APHIS office, a number of subjects were discussed about the study. Here are the key findings that would relate to hunters or those that come into close contact with deer:

They say there is no evidence that people can get COVID-19 from preparing or eating meat from animals infected with COVID-19, including wild game meat. They do point out, however, that hunters could get infected (just like with other diseases) if proper processing and preparation measures are not followed.

They encourage hunters to follow good hygiene practices when processing animals, including things like:

  • Do not allow contact between wildlife and domestic animals, including pets and hunting dogs.
  • Do not harvest animals that appear sick or are found dead.
  • Keep game meat clean and cool the meat down as soon as possible after harvesting the animal.
  • Avoid cutting through the backbone and spinal tissues and do not eat the brains of wildlife.
  • When handling and cleaning game:
    • Wear rubber or disposable gloves.
    • Do not eat, drink, or smoke.
  • When finished handling and cleaning game:
    • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
    • Clean knives, equipment, and surfaces that were in contact with game meat with soap and water and then disinfect them.
    • Cook all game meat thoroughly (to an internal temperature of 165 °F or higher).
    • Check with your State wildlife agency regarding any testing requirements for other diseases and for any specific instructions regarding preparing, transporting, and consuming game meat.

For non-hunters that are concerned about potentially getting COVID-19 from deer, they say in their Q&A document that there is currently no evidence that animals are playing a significant role in the spread of COVID-19 to people.

While there have been news stories since the start of the pandemic discussing the potential of transmission from an infected person via a pet to an uninfected person, the USDA's APHIS office calls the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people "low". This data is further backed up by information from the CDC, which says that while they are still learning more about the virus, currently available information suggests the risk of getting the virus from animals is considered low.

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