At least three virus variants have been discovered in wild white-tailed deer at six different locations in the US state of Ohio.

Deer also appear to be able to get the coronavirus. Scientists come to that conclusion in a new study, published in the journal Nature. Wild deer infected with the virus have been found in various places in the US state of Ohio. And that can have far-reaching consequences. “It could, for example, complicate future mitigation and control efforts for COVID-19,” said study researcher Andrew Bowman.


The news does not come as a big surprise. In a previous study, scientists had already discovered wild deer with antibodies. But now it turns out that wild white-tailed deer can actually get COVID-19. In addition, at least three variants of the virus have been found in wild white-tailed deer at six different sites in the US state of Ohio.

From man to deer

Between January and March 2021, the researchers took nasal swabs from 360 white-tailed deer across Ohio. As many as 35 percent (129 deer) tested positive for several strains of the coronavirus. In addition, at four of the sites, deer were infected with virus variants that were common among corona patients in Ohio at the time. Experts suspect that the virus has spread from humans to deer. “The working theory is that humans give the virus to deer,” Bowman says. “And apparently they’ve transferred it multiple times; we have evidence of six different viral introductions into the deer populations.”

There are an estimated 600,000 white-tailed deer in the state of Ohio. However, the researchers only tested the deer that are close to human populations in their study. Exactly how the deer became infected is still uncertain. They may have contracted the virus by drinking contaminated water. Research has shown that the coronavirus is excreted in human feces and is measurable in waste water.

In addition, it is quite possible that deer then pass the virus back on to each other: The researchers discovered several mutations in the viral spike protein that are not often seen in human infections. And that suggests that the virus has passed from deer to deer.

Corona reservoir

The fact that wild deer can become infected is somewhat disturbing. Because there is a fear that deer can form a new corona reservoir, from which they then infect humans again. “If the virus can establish itself and survive in deer, they could be a new potential source of SARS-CoV-2,” Bowman says. While the researchers have not yet found evidence that deer can transmit the virus to humans, the virus may mutate as it passes from deer to deer. And that means it can facilitate the emergence of new variants. According to the researchers, if we want to nip the emergence of new virus variants in the bud, we should keep a close eye on deer – along with other animal hosts.

Other outcome

But the emergence of new variants is not the only thing the researchers are concerned about. The virus may also survive unmutated in deer, while the virus continues to mutate in humans. This can result in people no longer being protected from the strains that carry deer at some point. The situation can then become dire when these variants flow back to people at some point.

However, the researchers underline that much is still unknown at the moment. For example, we do not yet know how the deer become infected, whether they can infect humans and other species, how the virus behaves in the animals’ bodies and whether it is a temporary or long-term infection. More research is therefore needed to understand the transmission and evolution of SARS-CoV-2 among deer, the authors conclude.

Did you know…

…it is not the first time that (wild) animals with corona have been discovered? For example, we already know that pets – such as dogs and cats – can get the coronavirus. Zoo animals such as tigers and lions and farm animals such as minks also appear to be infected. Researchers are therefore a little concerned. Because what if the virus continues to spread among animals without interruption, just like it does among human populations? Read more about it here!