Who is responsible for the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to white-tailed deer in North America is a mystery that virologists, wildlife biologists, and other experts have been trying to solve.
Since 2021, hundreds of white-tailed deer in 24 US states and several Canadian provinces have been found positive for COVID-19.
What’s worse, aside from finding the Alpha, Delta, and Omicron variants in these deer, the original virus has undergone more than 70 mutations in these ungulates. Some of these mutations are responsible for the amino-acid changes in the spike protein of the virus, thereby making it more infectious.
Alpha, Delta, Omicron Variant – You Name It, the Deer Have It, and More
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, animal researchers have been monitoring various wildlife which may be at risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Cases of human-to-animal transmission have been reported around the world, with people passing the virus to their pets. A study in the Netherlands supported this after discovering that domestic dogs and cats whose owners are sick with COVID have a one-in-five chance of getting infected too.
Opportunistic spillover of the disease from humans has also extended to the following fauna species, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- snow leopards, lions, and tigers
- mule deer, hyenas, and fishing cats
- ferrets, minks, otters, binturong, giant ant-eater, and coatimundi
- monkeys and apes
- hippopotamuses and manatees
The most serious concern among experts is that the white-tailed deer can become an animal reservoir of SARS-CoV-2, which can continuously mutate into more dangerous variants and spill back to humans.
How Did the White-Tailed Deer of North America Get the Disease?
Experts are yet to confirm if humans are directly responsible for passing the deadly virus to the white-tailed deer population of North America. Currently, one-third of the deer population appears to be already infected with COVID-19 based on tests done in various states.
But some scientists argue that direct contact between people and deer is not the only possible means of COVID-19 transmission. These animals can get the virus from eating contaminated food from humans or when they come in contact with contaminated surfaces like garbage cans, since these animals have already grown accustomed to visiting human settlements.
Yet, experts are also perplexed by study results from Europe showing negative SARS-CoV-2 infection tests among the various deer populations on the continent.
What is certain is that the timing of the infections and the type of variants that were discovered in North America’s deer through genome sequencing are the same as those of local communities with significant cases of COVID-19 where these animals frequently roam.
Also, a serious spillback may not be far away, with incidents of several people getting sick with COVID 19 after direct contact with infected hamsters in HongKong, infected minks in Denmark, and an infected deer in Ontario, Canada.
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