COVID-19 antibodies found in Michigan deer, USDA study shows

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is investigating after finding SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, the virus that causes COVID-19, in deer populations in Michigan.

After learning that deer are susceptible to catching COVID-19, the USDA launched a study across four states and recently released the findings. A group of scientists with the organization used samples from 481 deer.

In Illinois, they found 7% of the 101 deer tested had COVID-19 antibodies. In New York, 19% of the 68 deer tested had antibodies. In Pennsylvania, samples were collected from 199 deer. The USDA says 31% tested positive for antibodies.

They also tested 113 samples in the state of Michigan. They say 67% of the deer in the test pool had COVID-19 antibodies.

“We currently do not really know the implications of this initial look,” Dr. Thomas DeLiberto with the USDA said.

DeLiberto works with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Wildlife Services team. He says the presence of antibodies means the deer likely had COVID-19 at some point. The tests did not indicate if the virus is still circulating in the populations sampled.

DeLiberto says these initial findings don’t necessarily reflect the entire population of deer in each state.

“If we wanted to talk about how many deer or the percent of deer in the entire state that were infected, we would have to collect a larger sample size over a much broader distribution across the state,” DeLiberto said.

The USDA is now working to answer more questions including how COVID-19 cases in deer could impact human populations and how deer could have contracted the virus. DeLiberto says it could be from people, surfaces, feed or other animals.

“It’s likely that’s it’s not through one route because we found exposure in deer across four states over a really broad geographical range within each state and across the four states,” he added. “It’s likely that exposure is happening in several or many different ways.”

Despite the findings, the USDA says it’s unlikely that the COVID-19 cases found in deer will have an impact on hunting season.

“There’s really no evidence that people can get SARS-CoV-2 from eating food, whether that’s normal livestock or game hunted wild meat. There’s no evidence that hunters can get COVID-19 from deer, however there are other diseases we can get from close contact with wildlife,” DeLiberto said.

The USDA says they are encouraging people to practice good hygiene while handling animals and to generally enjoy nature at a distance. They’re now working to learn more about potential implications.

News 8 reached out the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to ask if it will begin checking for COVID-19 at deer check stations. It say it’s too early to know what next steps are.

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