Outdoors: Study showing coronavirus present in deer no cause for alarm

Aug. 10—Our health concerns related to white-tailed deer have been keenly focused on the most dreaded killers of these large game animals — Chronic Wasting Disease and Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease — best known by their acronyms CWD and EHD.

CWD has earned the nickname zombie deer disease for the devastating symptoms it carries.

There are also some scary maladies called Bluetongue Virus, Lung Worm, and mange that can be fatal to deer.

Can we add the coronavirus to the list since a recently completed study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) determined that blood serum samples from white-tailed deer from the wild herd in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois contained antibodies to the coronavirus? (Deer from Ohio were not part of this study.)

Before we take the study results and make the leap to a premature conclusion that the majority of our deer are now coronavirus carriers, the biologists who conducted the study have slammed on the brakes to slow such conjecture. They caution earlier media reports have misinterpreted the study's purpose and what the data reveals.

Dr. Tom Deliberto with the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., stressed the study was not an extensive examination of the coronavirus in white-tailed deer.

"The study that we did really just looked at whether deer had antibodies to SARS-COVID-2, and we were not looking at whether they currently have the virus or the prevalence of the virus," he said. "We found simply that deer in the four states we looked at were exposed to the virus. That is all that we can say from the study."

He further clarified the study was designed to determine the exposure of deer to the coronavirus in their natural environment. The study was not intended to determine whether the deer were replicating and shedding the virus.

With the Ohio archery hunting season for white-tailed deer just over six weeks away, and the Michigan bow season starting about a week later, Deliberto added the meat from wild deer remains safe to eat when properly prepared.

"There is no evidence to suggest that you can get COVID-19 from wild deer meat. If you handle the meat properly and cook the meat properly, you will protect yourself," he said.

Deliberto said the study was part of APHIS' approach to examining diseases in animals, and looking at whether diseases that impact humans also occur in other mammals.

"Studying the susceptibility of certain mammals, such as deer, to SARS-CoV-2 helps to identify species that may serve as reservoirs or hosts for the virus, as well as understand the origin of the virus, and predict its impacts on wildlife and the risks of cross-species transmission," the APHIS publications linked to the study explained.

When the study results were released, there was some initial alarm over headlines that indicated 67 percent of the deer blood serum samples from Michigan deer contained coronavirus antibodies. The antibody positive rate was 31 percent in the Pennsylvania deer that were tested, 19 percent in the deer from New York, and seven percent in the Illinois deer.

"Keep in mind that we had a very low sample size," Deliberto said, adding that there were just 113 blood serum samples examined from Michigan deer.

The study results showed that antibodies to the coronavirus were detected in just one of the total of 143 serum samples collected prior to January, 2020, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of the virus in the U.S. human population. APHIS noted that this single sample showed the minimum threshold and was likely a false positive. Coronavirus antibodies were detected in one-third of the 481 white-tailed deer serum samples that were collected from January, 2020, and into 2021.

Deliberto said the deer blood serum that was tested for this study did not require the collection of additional animals from the wild, since the biologists used deer tissue samples that had been collected for other work done by the USDA Wildlife Services.

"These samples were put into our biological archives — deep freezes — in case something like this comes up," he said. "Then, in cases such as this, we pull those samples out and study them."

He said additional studies looking at other possible aspects of the impact of coronavirus on the wild deer herd could be undertaken in the future.

"At this point, it is still too early in the process to say what comes next," he said. "We are discussing this with Michigan and lots of different states and trying to figure out what is the best way forward. We are looking at all of the possible ways we might be able to gain more information. This study was just the first step."

Deliberto added future phases of any study of the coronavirus in wild white-tailed deer could involve some hunter-harvested deer.

The archery season for white-tailed deer opens on Sept. 25 in Ohio and runs through Feb. 6. The Michigan archery season opens on Oct. 1 with the first phase running through Nov. 14, and a second phase taking place Dec. 1 to Jan. 1. There is an extended archery season in the Urban Deer Management Zone of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties that runs through Jan. 31.

First Published August 9, 2021, 10:36am