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As COVID19 Cases Finally Recede Globally, Another Worry Emerges: Wildlife Virus Outbreaks

As COVID19 Cases Finally Recede Globally, Another Worry Emerges: Wildlife Virus Outbreaks

As America’s COVID19 pandemic seems to be moving into a new phase, with national rates in decline from the September peak and vaccines rolling out to children, a new worry has appeared on the horizon: wildlife passing on the virus.

A new study shows that deer can catch the coronavirus from people and give it to other deer in overwhelming numbers, the first evidence of animals transmitting the virus in the wild. Similar transmission could also be occurring in certain animal populations around the world, with troubling implications for eradicating the virus and potentially even for the emergence of new variants.


Deer are abundant in North America and a popular target for hunters, but they’re also highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. Experts say deer may contract the virus simply from grazing on discarded food, drinking contaminated wastewater, or nosing through undergrowth where a person has spit or relieved themselves.

One-third of Iowa deer sampled over nine months had active infections, with a peak of 80% testing positive between November and January, according to a preprint study obtained by The Guardian that has not yet been peer-reviewed or published. The virus very likely spilled over from humans to deer through several different interactions, and then it probably spread to other deer, according to the analysis.

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But deer aren’t the only animal population impacted by human COVID contagion. Around the world, SARS-CoV-2 has been reported in cats, dogs, ferrets, minks, lions, tigers, pumas and gorillas. Hyenas at the Denver zoo recently tested positive, the first confirmed cases in those animals. And in August 2020, an outbreak at a mink farm in Utah led investigators to sample wild mink nearby – and they found antibodies and active infections in some of the wild animals. A few months later, in November 2020, Denmark killed 17 million mink after the virus jumped from people to farmed mink and back to people again – the only documented case of animals passing the coronavirus back to people. The virus mutated, but none of the changes were dangerous.

Cross-species contagion can result in mutations, and experts say it’s hard to know whether these variations will be milder or more severe. More research would also reveal whether or how animals spread the virus across species, including to people. Read The Guardian’s in-depth report here.

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