How American White-Tailed Deer Could Alter the Course of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Researchers have evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, is spreading significantly in white-tailed deer across the United States. Experts say these findings are quite concerning and could have implications for the ecology and long-term persistence of COVID-19. The white-tailed deer is native to North America, Central America, and the northern edge of South America. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 30 million white-tailed deer. 

Deer in several states have tested positive for COVID-19, according to multiple studies. 

A recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) collected and analyzed 481 samples from deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania between January 2020 and March 2021. They found SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in 33% of those samples. The service said it's possible deer were exposed through people, the environment, other deer, or even another animal species. 

In September of last year, computer models suggested that SARS-CoV-2 could easily bind to and enter the white-tailed deer’s cells. Another recent survey of deer in the Midwest and Northeast found that 40% of them had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Similarly, a study conducted by Pennsylvania State University found more than 80% percent of the white-tailed deer sampled in different parts of Iowa between December 2020 and January 2021 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. According to veterinary virologist Suresh Kuchipudi at Penn State, the findings suggest that white-tailed deer could become what's known as “a reservoir” for SARS-CoV-2. Meaning, the animals could carry the virus indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically. If that is the case, experts say that the virus could continue to circulate, even if the entire human population becomes immune. This circulation would make it essentially impossible to eradicate or even manage the virus. 

COVID-19 is known to be carried by many mammals, and several zoo animals like tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo in New York City and spotted hyenas at the Denver Zoo have gotten sick from the virus. Most recently, it was announced that three snow leopards died of complications related to COVID-19 at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo in Nebraska. The snow leopards were not the only animals to have contracted the virus at the facility; the Lincoln Children’s Zoo had published a statement in October 2021 disclosing that the snow leopards and Sumatran tigers had “tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.” 

According to APHIS, clinical signs of illness were not observed in the deer populations that were surveyed in the federal study. Following the APHIS survey, the Oklahoma Wildlife Department analyzed deer blood samples and found that some did test positive for COVID-19. The Oklahoma Wildlife Department says that there is no known risk of COVID-19 exposure associated with cleaning deer or eating cooked venison. However, since deer hunting is prevalent in the state, and Oklahoma’s deer hunting season opens on November 20, the department has tips for hunters handling the animal. To reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection when handling harvested deer, people should follow the same guidelines recommended to reduce human-to-human transmission, such as handwashing and wearing gloves and face masks. 

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) has similar advice for hunters in that state; According to the division, hunters should "avoid handling or consuming wild animals that appear sick or those found dead," "wear gloves and a face shield when handling" game, and “minimize contact with the brain or spinal tissue.” Other best practices include processing game outdoors or in a well-ventilated location, carefully handling knives to prevent accidental cuts, thoroughly washing hands, and sanitizing all tools and work surfaces used during and after processing. The division also said that game meat should be cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165°F to kill pathogens. 

Virologist Linda Saif at Ohio State University's College of Veterinary Medicine says humans are likely infecting white-tailed deer across the country. "We also have detected the virus in deer in Ohio," says Saif. "And there are antibody studies that suggest the prevalence of COVID infections among deer are pretty high in the Midwest and East." Although the virus doesn't seem to make the animals sick, Saif says, the emerging data from Iowa is "very concerning."

Another primary concern is that SARS-CoV-2 could evolve inside the deer and create new strains of the virus. This scenario has already been documented with farmed mink in the Netherlands and Poland. In those studies, farmworkers passed the virus on to the captive animals. As the coronavirus spread through the mink, it mutated and created new variants. These new versions of the virus then spilled back to the humans, the researchers reported.

According to experts, there’s an urgent need to be proactive about emerging variants by continuing to monitor SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife, especially in animals that could serve as a reservoir, like white-tailed deer. 

Are Disinfectants Effective Against Emerging Coronavirus Variants? 

In January 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a statement saying that it expects disinfectants on List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19) to kill all strains of SARS-CoV-2. This is expected based on the structure of viruses, which can be split into three classes: Enveloped viruses, large non-enveloped viruses, and small non-enveloped viruses.

Enveloped viruses are surrounded by a fatty layer that breaks apart easily, making them easy to kill with a disinfectant. On the other hand, non-enveloped viruses have tough outer coatings, making them more challenging to eradicate. 

SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus containing protein “spikes” that stick through the fatty outer layer, creating its infamous crown-like structure. 

A variant resulting from a mutation in an enveloped virus is still an enveloped virus with the easy-to-kill fatty outer layer, and therefore equally susceptible to the germ-killing power of disinfectants as the original virus strain. In short, the mutation may slightly alter the genetic make-up and characteristics of the virus (the protein spikes, for example), but it does not change the physical structure of the virus. This scientific rationale is the basis for the EPA’s determination that viruses on List N are expected to kill all strains, or variants, of SARS-CoV-2. 

Our all-in-one cleaner and EPA-registered disinfectant product, Vital Oxide, is on the EPA’s List N and is tested and proven effective in killing SARS-CoV-2 on hard, non-porous surfaces with a contact time of just five minutes. Vital Oxide has been used in homes, businesses, hospitals, restaurants, public transportation, and more worldwide to help combat SARS-CoV-2. 

Additionally, Vital Oxide is ideal for use in zoos, veterinary clinics, and animal care facilities to reduce the spread of pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2. 

Related: Vital Oxide: The Ideal Disinfectant for Veterinary & Animal Care Facilities 

Vital Oxide may also be used to clean and sanitize deer processing tools, equipment, and surfaces (including cutting boards, knives, scalpels, countertops, bowls, grinders, scales, etc.). Unlike conventional solutions such as chlorine bleach or hydrogen peroxide that can cause corrosion and damage surfaces, Vital Oxide is non-corrosive to treated surfaces. It is also an NSF-rated food-contact sanitizer (no-rinse required), making it ideal for use on wild game processing surfaces. 

Steps to Disinfect with Vital Oxide During the COVID-19 Pandemic And Beyond 

Before you expose a surface to a disinfectant, a pre-cleaning step is always required. The cleaning process can reduce germs by removing dirt, grime, and residue that can harbor bacteria and viruses, but it does not reduce the germ load to the 99.9% level. 

Once a surface is clean, the disinfectant will be able to do its job. The disinfectant should always come into contact with 100% of the surface; otherwise, it won’t be as effective. Vital Oxide can be used to pre-clean surfaces before disinfecting under lightly soiled conditions. Clean and disinfect in two easy steps: Spray and wipe Vital Oxide to clean, then spray and leave behind to disinfect. Just make sure you are applying enough solution to remain wet for the proper contact time. 

Vital Oxide kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria, including SARS-CoV-2, without harsh chemicals, noxious fumes, harmful residues, or alarming safety warnings. After use, Vital Oxide breaks down into simple salt and produces no harmful byproducts. 

At Vital Oxide, we’re proud to offer a revolutionary product that’s powerful enough to kill 99.9% of viruses and bacteria without harsh chemicals or alarming safety ratings. Follow us on Instagram (@vitaloxideofficial) for more great cleaning and disinfecting tips. If you have any questions, please Contact Us or Send Us a Message on Facebook. We're here to help!
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