Wildlife experts watching deer population for virus behind COVID-19

·2 min read
Deer in Ontario and Quebec are now being tested for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. (CBC/Gord Ellis - image credit)
Deer in Ontario and Quebec are now being tested for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. (CBC/Gord Ellis - image credit)

Wildlife experts in Canada are keeping a close eye on deer populations after a U.S. study found nearly half of white-tailed deer had antibodies for the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness, raising concerns on both sides of the border.

The study published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in 152 — 40 per cent — of blood samples collected from the deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania in 2021.

Throughout the pandemic, federal and provincial agencies in Canada, including in Ontario and Quebec, have been testing several animals, including deer, for the virus. So far results are good.

"We have no evidence of any SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife in Ontario," said Jeff Bowman a research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry.

When they manipulate the carcasses, make sure that they wear some gloves and, as well, making sure the meat is well cooked for human consumption. - Marianne Gagnier, biologist

While it's still unknown how the deer in the U.S. came into contact with the virus, Bowman said the study's findings are worrisome.

"We would be concerned about establishing a reservoir in a wildlife population because the virus could then reinfect humans from that reservoir," he said.

A wildlife reservoir of the virus could subsequently lead to mutations that could escape protection from COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

In an email, the ministry said that several different mammal species have been shown to be susceptible to contracting the virus, such as animals in the weasel and deer families, cats, beavers and mice.

In British Columbia hundreds of mink have been infected by the virus.

200 deer tested in Quebec

Researchers in Quebec have also been testing deer populations, including multiple in the Outaouais region. The results of those tests haven't been released yet, so hunters are urged to take precautions.

Serova_Ekaterina/Shutterstock
Serova_Ekaterina/Shutterstock

"When they manipulate the carcasses, make sure that they wear some gloves and, as well, making sure the meat is well cooked for human consumption," said Marianne Gagnier, a biologist with Quebec's Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs.

"That's the same recommendation to prevent an infection from, you know, other diseases, as well as as the parasites that can be found in some venison meat."

Since white-tailed deer are common in some urban parks, it is also recommended people wear a mask if they are near an animal.

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