SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — In December 2020 scientists found that the coronavirus infected a large number of white-tailed deer in Iowa. When scientists sampled some unlucky deer that was killed by hunters or cars they found that over 60% of the deer sampled were infected with COVID-19.

“I was very surprised, ” said Kendra Findley, head epidemiologist for the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. “It’s surprising when you got that jump of a human disease also in an animal species.”

Studies are proving that deer can contract the virus very easily. Scientists are worried that the animal could potentially become a reservoir for the virus and be a potential source for new variants.

“You do start to worry that a virus that can jump from different species, such as COVID-19, that it will create another variant and that’s the concern,” said Findley.

Infections in deer, which show very few signs of illness, are difficult to detect and contain. There are around 30 million deer that roam the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed infections in 15 states–Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Virginia.

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Research suggests that deer are catching the virus from humans and then spreading it to other deer. However, there is some good news.

“There is no evidence at this point that deer are spreading COVID back to humans,” said Findley. “

But, scientists have found some deer are getting reinfected by the Omnicron variant. The longer-term, widespread circulation of the virus in deer would give the virus an opportunity to mutate and make it possible for a new variant to spill over into people or even other animals.

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“It’s disheartening,” said Findley. “We are so tired. We have been in this pandemic loop for two years and I think that most people would like to get back to some normalcy in their life. We are fighting it in the human population and it’s already mutating over and over within the human population. And now having to look at possibly fighting it within the animal population that’s concerning.”

Even though deer cannot give humans the virus that doesn’t mean the virus won’t evolve.

“If it can jump from human to deer it can come back [ to humans] but it’s not as easy,” said Findley.

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Part of that is because COVID-19 is not transmitted by blood but through respiratory droplets. How humans are spreading the virus to deer is unknown. It could be directly–such as someone handing feeding a deer– or indirectly through wastewater.

Researchers recommend hunters should take additional measures when harvesting deer, such as avoiding the head, lungs, and digestive tract. Hunters are also encouraged to wear gloves, masks, and be vaccinated

Scientists say the most effective way to prevent the deer from becoming a reservoir for the virus is to curb its spread in humans.