Research conducted by Douglas Watts, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), has found COVID-19 present in white-tailed deer in Texas.
A report on the discovery was published recently in Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on diseases transmitted to humans by animals.
The UTEP team found the first reported evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in deer from Texas, which widens the previously reported geographical range of COVID-19 among deer in the United States, further confirming that infection was common among the species.
“The one thing we know best about SARS-CoV-2 is its unpredictability,” Watts said. “Therefore, the transmission of the virus from infected deer back to humans, while not likely, may be possible.”
While the mechanisms of COVID-19 transmission between humans and animals is still being investigated, the UTEP team’s study suggests that deer should not be neglected as a possible source of SARS-CoV-2 infection among humans as well as domestic and wildlife animals. Watts said subsequent investigations should work to mitigate any risks associated with deer as a possible source of human infection.
The study’s lead author was Pedro Palermo, manager of the UTEP Border Biomedical Research Center’s Biosafety Level 3 Infectious Disease Research Program laboratory. Palermo explained the results of this research raise many questions regarding infection and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 among wild and domestic animals.
“UTEP works to address challenging issues through its research,” said Robert A. Kirken, Ph.D., dean of the College of Science. “This project is a great example of that because it has the potential to make an impact on the health of people throughout the country.”
Watts’ team studied blood samples collected from deer of various ages in Travis County, Texas, during the first two months of 2021, amid the pandemic. Evidence of SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies was found in more than a third of the samples, including a significant prevalence among deer that were 1.5 years old, indicating that the disease is rampant among one of the most abundant wildlife species, particularly among males.
The 37% antibody prevalence observed in this study is comparable to the 40% rate reported in deer in other states including Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York.
The research was funded by a grant from the National Institutes on Minority Health and Health Disparities, a component of the National Institutes of Health.