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 with Rob Miskosky

Cervid COVID Concerns

I wrote last month about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 being found in white-tailed deer in 40 percent of blood samples collected from deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. At that time, some fish and wildlife agencies across Canada began to test white-tailed deer in their jurisdictions for the virus, with no positive tests being found.

However, now everything has changed.

The National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 was found for the first time in three free-ranging deer in the Estrie region of Quebec.

“As this is the first detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife in Canada, information on the impacts and spread of the virus in wild deer populations is currently limited,” said Environment Canada in a news release.

Scientists are concerned that it could spread to other deer and other species, becoming a possible source of infection for humans, including as a new variant.

Evidence suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means “any disease of animals communicable to humans.”

According to the Canadian Animal Health Institute, “Experts estimate that at least 60% of all human diseases can move from human to animal and vice-versa. In fact, over the past three decades, approximately 75% of new emerging human infectious diseases have been of animal-origin, or zoonotic.”

Which puts hunters and trappers at a higher risk, simply because of the number of animals they handle.

According to Alberta’s Provincial Wildlife Disease Specialist, Dr. Margo Pybus, Alberta will begin testing some of the collected CWD heads for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the New Year.

Alberta also participated in a Rapid Qualitative Risk Assessment of the potential for COVID-19 in a deer to infect a person in Canada.

A question asked was “What is the likelihood and impact of at least one person in Canada becoming clinically ill due to SARS-CoV-2 as a result of contact with WTD (white-tailed deer) within the next 12 months?”

The answer, “Most likely low (captive and free-ranging) for contact with a WTD carcass, but ranging to moderate for certain groups in certain situations. The level of uncertainty is moderate to high.”

● The probability of exposure to an infectious dose is highest for the following groups, if they do not wear PPE and are not vaccinated: hunters, producers, farm workers, veterinarians, butchers, and taxidermists. In particular those who: handle the carcass directly after kill, work in confined spaces,  process large numbers of animals, or use power tools for slaughter.
I would add trappers to that list as well.

Regarding a variant of the virus, the Risk Assessment states, “The probability that a novel variant of the virus evolves in WTD that is of concern to wildlife species or humans was considered too uncertain to assess at this point in time. It is impossible to know without a better understanding of viral dynamics in deer. SARS-CoV-2 mutates over time, as has been seen in humans and farmed mink; however, in most instances, mutations have no or little direct impact (Harvey et al., 2021; World Health Organization et al., 2021).”

Therefore, uncertainty remains; thus, monitoring the virus in white-tailed deer becomes necessary for fish and wildlife agencies wherever white-tailed deer populations exist.

As a precaution, anybody that handles animals, regardless of species, should always wear, at minimum, disposable gloves.

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