No, there is no evidence that deer transmit COVID-19 to humans

White-tailed deer in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19. But there is no evidence that deer transmit the virus to humans.
Credit: Stan - stock.adobe.com

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found COVID-19 antibodies in white-tailed deer tested in four states: Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.

Now, some health officials suggest hunters wear a mask while handling and cleaning carcasses. That has prompted some questions about whether hunting deer and eating their meat is safe.

THE QUESTION

Is there evidence that deer transmit COVID-19 to humans?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, there is no evidence that deer transmit COVID-19 to humans.

WHAT WE FOUND

Multiple studies have found COVID-19 antibodies in deer. A study by the USDA found that COVID-19 antibodies were detected in 33% of 481 samples taken from white-tailed deer between January 2020 and March 2021 in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. However, researchers were unable to conclude how the deer were infected.

“We do not know how the deer were exposed to SARS-CoV-2,” the USDA said. “It’s possible they were exposed through people, the environment, other deer, or another animal species.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says COVID-19 can spread from people to “susceptible animal species.” Those species include deer and cats, which is why lions and tigers in zoos have tested positive for COVID-19.

But because white-tailed deer can be infected with COVID-19 doesn’t mean they’re transmitting the virus to humans.

“We know from the deer that have been caught and surveys that they’ve done, there’s many deer that have tested positive,” said José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “But, to date, we don’t have any evidence of deer transmitting COVID to humans.”

Jennifer Jones Shults, a veterinarian in North Carolina, says the spike protein in the virus that causes COVID-19 doesn’t tend to bind well in animals. So, animals may not have enough of the virus to transmit it back to humans.

“There haven't been any reported cases of COVID-19 transmission from an animal to a human because the virus doesn't really want to infect the other species in the first place,” she said.

The CDC also says there is currently no evidence that wildlife transmits COVID-19 to people in the U.S. Furthermore, the federal public health agency says, “There is currently no evidence that you can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating food, including wild hunted game meat in the United States.”

There are still some precautions concerned hunters can take around white-tailed deer. The Wisconsin Department of Health encourages hunters to wear a mask and gloves, and avoid eating, drinking and smoking while handling deer carcasses. The health department notes that the advisory is out of an abundance of caution and not the result of known deer-to-human COVID-19 transmission. 

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