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Environment

Scientists test North Carolina deer for COVID-19

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In fall 2021, Moriah Boggess, a deer biologist with North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission, set up a table outside a handful of deer processing businesses in the eastern part of the state as hunters dropped off animals to be butchered.

He swabbed roughly 75 deer, “pretty much the same way that humans are swabbed for COVID-19,” he said, and also collected a small blood sample for coronavirus antibody testing.

“(We got) a couple of surprised looks and questions about what we were doing,” Boggess said.

Boggess sent the specimens to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is conducting a nationwide surveillance study of COVID-19 in white-tailed deer. The federal agency has also collected its own samples across North Carolina and in at least 13 other states and is testing them at a central lab.

Six North Carolina deer had tested positive as of Monday, according to early results posted to the USDA. website, though Boggess emphasized the study samples are still being processed. One deer had been reported positive in South Carolina.

“White-tailed deer are a widespread, large mammal across the eastern U.S. and they are obviously very susceptible to COVID ,” Boggess said. “And so understanding what percentage of the population has that disease could be very impactful in the future.”

Thus far, all COVID-positive deer in the U.S. have appeared to be asymptomatic, according to Boggess. Research suggests deer are catching the virus from humans and spreading it to other deer, The New York Times reported, and there is no evidence that the animals then transmit it back to people. But some researchers have expressed concern that if the virus circulates widely in deer, the species could serve as a breeding ground for new variants that could infect humans.

“The virus will try out all kinds of compartments , whether it be deer or unvaccinated people or immunocompromised people,” said Dan Janies, a professor of bioinformatics and genomics at UNC Charlotte. “And once it is somewhat successful in one of those compartments, or one of those new hosts, it can change a lot … and come out very different.”

North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission issued precautions about COVID-19 and deer. The agency recommends hunters wear rubber or latex gloves when handling or processing deer and minimize contact with the animal’s respiratory tract, among other things.

According to the Resources Commission, there is “no evidence that COVID-19 can be contracted through food consumption, including venison.”
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