CENTRAL TEXAS — Not much is known about the ability of animals to spread COVID-19 to humans, but researchers say it’s worth investigating as more cases were discovered in Texas deer.
A recent study published by scientists at the University of Texas at El Paso found the presence of COVID-19 in white-tailed deer in Texas. According to the UTEP team, the study shows that deer may need to be considered as a possible transmission point to humans.
“Animals are getting the infection from us, but most of the risk to us is pretty low to receive it back from an animal,” said Amy Mersiovsky, director of the department of nursing at Texas A&M – Central Texas.
Simply coming in contact with an infected deer may not be enough to contract the virus. Making contact with viral particles and then touching your eyes or mouth is a less-common way of catching the virus but it can still happen. However, the virus spreads most easily when someone inhales airborne particles containing COVID.
“The main problem is breathing in those air particles from someone that has COVID-19,” said the director of the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District LaShonda Malrey-Horne. “So, if you’re within six feet of them, you’re likely to be able to breathe in those air particles.”
In fact, airborne transmission is precisely how animals are able to receive the virus from humans. Deer are part of a growing list of animals known to have become infected. Several cases have already been reported nationwide in companion animals such as dogs and cats.
“We’re sneezing and coughing with COVID,” said Mersiovsky. “They inhale the virus just like we would inhale it from another human, and that’s how they’re getting it.”
Not much is known about the geographic spread of infected deer in Texas. The UTEP study looked at blood samples from deer in Travis County (Austin) with over one-third of the samples showing COVID antibodies. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department declined to comment on the parts of the state with the highest concentration of infected deer. A statement made by the TPWD press office states that they are not testing deer for the coronavirus and they do not find the UTEP study to be of concern.
COVID test kits aren’t being used for the purpose of testing animals. Instead, scientists are able to confirm cases by detecting the presence of antibodies. Other states like Illinois and New York have reported antibodies in about 40 percent of their samples, similar to the results in the UTEP study.
Simply eating meat from an infected animal shouldn’t be enough to pass COVID to you, but hunters usually know to avoid meat from a deer that appears ill.
“You harvest an animal that’s sick, you look at it, you decide it’s probably sick, then you probably don’t want to eat that,” said Mersiovsky.
Hunters who were exposed to deer over this past hunting season don’t need to rush out to get tested, but in the meantime, researchers at UTEP and the CDC will continue to explore the contagious effects of animals.