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

by Liam O'Connor
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COVID-19 transmission

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has conducted a groundbreaking research study indicating the widespread transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, within the white-tailed deer population in the United States. The findings suggest a potential transmission cycle between humans and deer, where the virus mutates and may transmit back to humans. This study involved the surveillance of over 11,000 white-tailed deer.

According to the research by USDA’s APHIS, SARS-CoV-2 has significantly spread among white-tailed deer in the U.S., likely originating from human transmission. The virus has undergone mutations within the deer population and could potentially be transmitted back to humans. These findings shed light on the role of cervids, such as white-tailed deer, as a possible “reservoir species” that can harbor and potentially alter the virus.

While scientists continue to study the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on animals, there is currently no evidence suggesting animals play a significant role in transmitting the virus to humans.

Dr. Mike Watson, the acting Administrator of APHIS, emphasized the importance of ongoing research to address critical animal and public health questions related to SARS-CoV-2. He highlighted the need for a comprehensive One Health approach to understand the risks posed to wildlife conservation and public health by the continued circulation of this disease in wildlife.

Mr. Gary Nohrenberg, Minnesota State Wildlife Services Director, discussed the surveillance data collected during the first year of the study on white-tailed deer. This research contributes to APHIS’ broader efforts to investigate SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife and enhances our understanding of how diseases affecting both humans and animals spread and evolve within wildlife populations, preparing us for future outbreaks.

The second year of APHIS’ research involves expanding disease surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 to other members of the deer family, as well as encompassing additional states, territories, and tribes. In the initial year of sampling, APHIS and its partners tested over 11,000 white-tailed deer for SARS-CoV-2, detecting the virus in 12.2% of the samples, while 31.6% had antibodies indicating previous exposure to the virus. More information about the APHIS white-tailed deer surveillance program, including Year 1 surveillance data and frequently asked questions, is available on the agency’s website.

The collaboration between APHIS, state wildlife agencies, and other stakeholders in wildlife surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 aligns with broader efforts to enhance the nation’s capacity to detect and respond to emerging diseases in animals.

APHIS collaborated with the University of Missouri and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to publish a recent study titled “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in free-ranging white-tailed deer in the United States.” This study involved wildlife surveillance across 27 states, collecting over 9,000 respiratory samples from free-ranging white-tailed deer between November 2021 and April 2022. The research revealed at least 106 instances of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from humans to white-tailed deer in the United States, with subsequent mutations and potential transmission back to humans in three cases.

Dr. Xiu-Feng “Henry” Wan, a professor at the University of Missouri and director of the NextGen Center for Influenza and Emerging Infectious Diseases, highlighted that deer often interact with humans and inhabit human environments, posing unique public health risks for the persistence and evolution of zoonotic diseases like SARS-CoV-2 within wildlife populations.

APHIS continues to conduct various projects aimed at understanding the behavior of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in different animals, its inter-species transmission dynamics, and strategies to interrupt the chain of transmission. The agency’s strategic framework outlines its focused efforts to prevent, detect, investigate, and respond to SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging diseases that may pose a threat to humans and animals.

Dr. Ria Ghai, a researcher at the CDC, emphasized that this research enhances our understanding of the real-world spread and evolution of diseases affecting both humans and animals, equipping us to better manage future infectious disease outbreaks.

Increasingly, human, animal, and environmental health groups collaborate through the One Health approach to address complex questions. APHIS and its One Health partners work together, combining their unique skills, knowledge, perspectives, and experiences to strengthen our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and improve our ability to detect diseases early on.

Reference: 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. “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in free-ranging white-tailed deer in the United States.” Nature Communications, 10 July 2023, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39782-x.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about COVID-19 transmission

Q: What did the USDA study reveal about COVID-19 transmission between white-tailed deer and humans?

A: The USDA study found that SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, has widely spread among the white-tailed deer population in the US. It suggests a potential transmission cycle between humans and deer, where the virus mutates and may transmit back to humans.

Q: Is there evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 to humans?

A: Currently, there is no evidence suggesting that animals play a significant role in transmitting the virus to humans. Scientists are still studying the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on animals.

Q: What is a “reservoir species”?

A: A reservoir species refers to an animal host where a virus can survive and potentially change. In the case of white-tailed deer, they may act as a reservoir species for SARS-CoV-2, allowing the virus to persist and evolve within their population.

Q: How is the USDA addressing the research findings on SARS-CoV-2 in white-tailed deer?

A: The USDA’s APHIS is continuing its research efforts to answer critical animal and public health questions related to SARS-CoV-2. They emphasize the need for additional research using a One Health approach to understand the risks to wildlife conservation and public health associated with the continued circulation of the virus in wildlife.

Q: What is the One Health approach?

A: The One Health approach is a collaborative effort between human, animal, and environmental health groups. It combines their expertise to address complex health issues that involve interactions between humans, animals, and the environment. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the One Health approach helps in understanding the dynamics of the virus in different species and its transmission between animals and humans.

Q: What are the implications of the research findings for future zoological disease outbreaks?

A: The research findings on SARS-CoV-2 in white-tailed deer enhance our understanding of how diseases affecting both humans and animals spread and evolve in the real world. This knowledge equips us with better tools to manage and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks, including those with a zoonotic nature.

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