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COVID-19 confirmed in Utah mule deer

A mule deer buck with antlers looking from behind a tree
Mule deer can be infected with COVID-19.

Ginger Stout, State Veterinarian with Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been collaborating with state officials to test various wildlife species for COVID-19 as part of a research study.

“The USDA is the one that's kind of tasked with developing the study and looking into the wildlife species that may have COVID, just to look for potential reservoirs and potential species that could…transmit to people or, you know, domestic animals,” Stout said.

During annual helicopter captures for routine health checks, blood and nasal swab samples were collected from roughly 280 mule deer in Utah. The samples were sent to USDA labs for testing, and on March 22nd, a case of Delta variant COVID was confirmed in a mule deer in Morgan County.

“So, this was the first time that we looked in mule deer. And it was the first one found in the country,” Stout said.

Stout said, one animal tested positive on the nasal swab, but several others had antibodies in their blood.

“That means there’s been exposure in the past, as opposed to, you know, actively shedding the virus and transmitting it,” Stout said.

The USDA has plans to test other wildlife species for COVID and has been collaborating with zoos to see which species are susceptible, Stout said.

“It's definitely something we need to look into further to see where exactly it fits into the transmission pathway. And if viruses can change within each species and be, you know, given back to other species,” Stout said.

Understanding how the COVID-19 virus mutates and spreads between species will help us better prepare for new variants or novel coronaviruses in the future.

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.