Originally published on Nov. 5, 2021By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The coronavirus is widespread among white-tailed deer in Iowa, according to new research.

Penn State University researchers and wildlife officials in Iowa found that over 80% of deer in their samples tested positive for the virus, showing that it’s spreading very rapidly. That’s for samples taken from April 2020 through January 2021.

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There’s no evidence to suggest deer-to-human transmission, researchers said.

According to the study, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, the COVID-19 transmissions amongst deer in Iowa “likely resulted from multiple human-to-deer spillover events and deer-to-deer transmission.”

Researchers said the findings show the need for a “robust and proactive” approach to understand the ecology and evolution of the virus.

“In principle, SARS-CoV-2 infection of an animal host could result in it becoming a reservoir that drives the emergence of new variants with risk of spillback to humans,” the study said.

The findings come just days before Minnesota’s deer hunting season opener.

Dr. Jeff Bender, a veterinarian who teaches at the University of Minnesota and studies infectious diseases in animals, said hunters here should just take normal precautions.

“Unfortunately it does come out right in front of our deer opener, and I’m sure many of our hunters have concerns and questions,” he said. “But really, there’s no evidence of transmission from deer to people.”

Washing your hands, cooking the meat thoroughly and using gloves when processing their animal are all standard safety tips.

The Minnesota DNR is not doing a study on COVID in deer here, a spokesman said by email, but it is allowing the University of Minnesota to collect samples for analysis at sites already testing for Chronic Wasting Disease in the animals.

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But Bender said the scope of the spread of COVID in deer came as a surprise.

“So it raises some really interesting questions about how and why?” Bender said. “We’ve been unfortunately surprised with SARS-Coronavirus and COVID over the past year-and-a-half so any more surprises [are] not really needed right now.”

Interest in analyzing and concern about spillover of the virus to animals isn’t anything new, Bender told WCCO.

He noted studies looking at infections in mink that suggest spread from mink to humans, though there isn’t enough data to support the animals are driving widespread infection to people.

He believes more studies on deer should follow.

“Are there ways that we can protect deer so that they don’t get the virus so they don’t become a reservoir?” he pondered.

Spread of that contagious, neurological disorder known as CWD is more of a concern for Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Hunters Association, which has 20,000 members.

He encourages hunters to contribute samples in certain areas flagged for surveillance.

“It is a real issue, but it’s an animal issue more than a deer issue,” he said of COVID in deer, noting that the samples in Iowa came from routine testing for Chronic Wasting Disease. “We want people to go out and have fun hunting, be safe while you hunt and be safe when you’re hopefully cleaning your deer.”

Minnesota’s hunting season for deer begins Saturday.

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Caroline Cummings