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UVM study swabs white-tailed deer for COVID to better understand virus

A white-tailed deer
Matt Stone
MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images
A new study suggests that the white-tailed deer, pictured above, could carry SARS-CoV-2 indefinitely and spread it back to humans periodically.

On a foggy November morning on the Ethan Allen Highway, the sun has barely risen, and already several hunters have pulled their trucks into the parking lot of Rack N Reel in New Haven. In the back of their trucks are deer carcasses.

In Vermont, hunters are required to report their kills at a check station, which are often located at sporting goods and convenience stores.

During hunting season, the state’s busiest check stations are staffed by wildlife biologists, like Alyssa Bennett with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We use that biological data to help us manage these herds responsibly and based on the best data and science that we are collecting,” Bennett says.

They will often pull a tooth, check for ticks, and try to get an estimate of the bucks’ age. This year, another kind of test is being run.

The state is testing its white-tailed deer population for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“If we find evidence that they're circulating SARS-CoV-2 themselves, then it at least lays the foundation that potentially mutations could happen,”
Brittany Mosher, ecologist and professor

Members of University of Vermont’s Wildlife and Fisheries Society are leading the swabbing efforts. Today at the Rack N Reel, sophomore Catriona Goering is handling the testing.

“We have a bunch of swabs and we are going to be testing the deer population for COVID,” she says.

After opening a zip-close bag full of swabs, Goering chooses one and pulls back its plastic casing in preparation for the next deer.

Goering says that it’s exactly the same as administering a COVID test to a human.

After marking the vial, Goering places the sample on ice. Tomorrow, she'll return the box of vials to the lab to be processed.

White-tailed deer are being tested for COVID because, in theory, the virus could evolve while it circulates among animals and potentially mutate into a more deadly variant or in a way that could make our current vaccines less effective.

This study is being run by Emily Bruce, a virologist at the University of Vermont, and Brittany Mosher, an ecologist and professor at the University of Vermont.

Mosher says that studying this issue is important for understanding the future of the virus and interrupting its chain of transmission.

“If we find evidence that they're circulating SARS-CoV-2 themselves, then it at least lays the foundation that potentially mutations could happen,” she says.

Mosher says the deer themselves don’t seem to get sick, but without more data it’s hard to know how to keep the virus from potentially jumping back to humans.

“Once we figure out a little more detail on how the system is working, are there creative opportunities for interventions that might reduce risk,” Mosher says.

This year, Vermont vastly increased how many deer it sampled, from 18 in 2021 to 474 last year. And instead of partnering with the federal government, the study is being run by the University of Vermont.

Most other states that have tested their deer population have found COVID. Final data has not been released yet, but Bruce says results are expected soon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Joia Putnoi worked as a Newsroom Intern from 2022 - 2023.
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