Hunter-Harvested Deer Tested For COVID-19

New Hampshire Fish and Game is partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to collect blood samples from the Granite State's white-tailed deer population and test for COVID-19 antibodies. Scientists in other states have voiced concerns about the possibility of the virus mutating in deer and infecting humans with a more virulent strain. (Photo courtesy of New Hampshire Fish and Game)

As a number of states find some of their white-tailed deer population with COVID-19 virus antibodies, concerns have been voiced by several scientists about the virus mutating in deer, spilling over into people, and reinfecting humans with a more virulent strain.

The deer biologist with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department thinks that’s an unlikely scenario in the Granite State, but said Fish and Game is watching the situation closely, and, in partnership with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), has recently collected samples from deer harvested recently across the state.

“We collected blood samples this year during the five busiest days of the hunting season,” Dan Bergeron, the deer biologist with Fish and Game, said Wednesday. “We have biologists at biological check stations and collect ages and weights annually. This year, we also had them collect blood samples.”

DHHS is interested in looking for Jamestown Canyon Virus, a mosquito-borne virus, in the deer blood samples, and USDA will send the samples out for the testing of COVID antibodies in New Hampshire deer, he said.

“The samples were just completed about a week ago,” said Bergeron. “They’ll have to get processed so we don’t have any results back yet and we can’t say for certain whether or not deer in New Hampshire have been exposed. My guess is there is a fair chance we’ll have some that were, just because it seems to be in every place that they’ve looked so far and they’ve found it, even if it was at a lower percentage. But we won’t know for sure for a while yet.”

According to a Nov. 10 story by National Public Radio, scientists have concluded that COVID-19 spreads explosively in white-tailed deer and that the virus is widespread in deer across the United States and that could have vast implications for the long-term trajectory of the pandemic.

A recent survey of the deer in the Northeast and Midwest found that 40 percent of them had antibodies against COVID-19, according to the NPR story.

Deer could become reservoirs for the virus and carry it indefinitely, and, in spillover events between deer and people, occasionally spread it back to humans, making eliminating the virus difficult, Pennsylvania State University virologist Suresh Kuchipudi, who has co-led studies, told NPR.

Some studies conclude that the virus has spread in minks and mutated into new variants, with new versions of the virus spilling back into humans.

New Hampshire Fish and Game will likely be partnering with APHIS again next year and doing more sampling in 2022 because even after the results of the deer studies come out, there will be many questions that will still have to be answered, said Bergeron.

“I think there will be quite a bit more work to do in looking at what percentage of deer are exposed,” said Bergeron. “So far, the deer themselves don’t seem to be too negatively impacted. While they do seem to transmit it between themselves, they don’t seem to get overly clinically sick by it. There was a little bit of work early on with some captive deer. But right now, there are more questions than there are answers.”

As of now, humans catching a mutated and more dangerous form of the virus from deer remains the worst-case scenario that people are concerned about, he said.

“The thinking now is that the likelihood of that is somewhat low, but of course the more and more it spreads, it increases the possibility of that,” said Bergeron. “The probability of that happening isn’t understood at this point, but that would be the main worry … There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done. But we did test this year.”

Once the test results are back from the samples taken from the hunter-harvested deer, NHFG will publicly release them.

Fish and Game does two days of sample collecting at biological check stations at the opening of the muzzleloader season and then sampling during the first three days of the firearms season. The department has check stations spread throughout the state.

The samples were coming in bit by bit and were relayed to different places, so Fish and Game doesn’t yet have an exact total, said Bergeron.

Many samples end up being watered down and some have to be thrown out because there won’t be a viable sample in it.

The number of samples for both COVID-19 antibodies and Jamestown Canyon Virus likely won’t be the same, said Bergeron.

“Typically, we bio-check anywhere from 800 to 1,000 deer,” he said. “We can’t get blood samples on all of those, but I think we would have at least a few hundred samples … We try to spread the bio-check stations out so we’re getting a representative sample across the state.”

New Hampshire’s white-tailed deer population is a robust one and has more than tripled in the last three decades.

DHHS has done surveillance of deer and wildlife in past years and Fish and Game has collected blood samples for that department.

DHHS conducts surveillance for West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, both spread by infected mosquitoes.

“Again, it’s not really a concern for the deer or that people are going to get those from the deer because they’re mosquito-borne diseases,” said Bergeron. “It’s similar to how they do mosquito pool testing, to figure out where in the state is that stuff occurring and at what prevalence.”

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