White-tailed deer, like this doe, in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. (Photo/Terry Johnston)

White-tailed deer, like this doe, in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. (Photo/Terry Johnston)

Earlier this year the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that a recent survey found antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans) in wild white-tailed deer populations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York.

This survey is one of many studies being carried out throughout the world to identify mammals that might be susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The results of these studies enable biologists to identify wildlife species that can serve as reservoirs for the virus. Armed with this information, it is hoped that the impact of the virus on wildlife animal populations and the chances of the virus spreading between species can be calculated.

The APHIS study involved collecting 481 samples from deer from January 2020 and March 2021. The percentage of deer that tested positive for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies varied widely between states.  Here are the results:  Illinois -- 7% of 101 samples; New York -- 19% of 68 samples; Pennsylvania -- 31% of 199 samples; and Michigan -- 67% of 113 samples.  The researchers were quick to point out that these data do not represent the prevalence to the antibodies in each state's entire deer population.

When the APHIS researchers looked at 143 samples that were collected prior to January 2020 (before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged) only one sample tested positive to the antibodies. However, since this positivity only reached the minimum threshold needed for detection, the scientists feel this was more than likely a false positive. 

It is important to note none of the deer within the study areas displayed any clinical symptoms of the disease. In fact, biologists have not uncovered any evidence the SARS-CoV-2 virus can negatively affect a deer herd. 

Biologists with Cornell University and the United States Department of Agriculture published the results of an experiment conducted in laboratory conditions that demonstrated whitetails can spread the virus in their nasal secretions to other deer. In addition, none of the infected deer showed any observable signs that they were infected. However, they too developed antibodies against the disease.

According to APHIS, "We do not know how the deer were initially exposed to SARS-CoV-2. It has been suggested they were possibly infected when exposed through people, the environment, other deer, or other animals."  The scientists went on to say, "There is no evidence that animals, including deer, are playing a significant role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to people. Based on available information, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low."

I should pointed out there is no evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is present in the white-tailed deer populations living in Georgia. 

However, biologists representing APHIS, Federal and State agencies, the United States Department of Interior, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, are determining where to go from here.

I am certain that we will be hearing more about the potential ramifications of the discovery of SARS-CoV-2 in white-tailed deer.  In the meantime, there is no cause for alarm. Let's enjoy a great deer hunting season.

 Terry Johnson is retired Program Manager of the Georgia Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program. He has written the informative column ‘Monroe Outdoors’ for the Reporter for many years. His book, “A Journey to Discovery,” is available at The Reporter. Email him at tjwoodduck@bellsouth.net.