China’s state-run Global Times on Thursday fretted that America’s deer population could be teeming with Wuhan coronavirus and ready to “pass the virus to humans, triggering a new wave of the pandemic.”
The Global Times was reporting on a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), currently in “preprint” status and not formally published, which analyzed 624 serum samples from white-tailed deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. It found 152 of the samples to contain SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.
The Chinese Communist paper got excited that the discovery of this Bambi Variant might somehow prove the coronavirus was circulating in the United States before the Wuhan outbreak, but the U.S. National Wildlife Research Center noted that only one of the 143 samples collected before January 2020 contained antibodies, and even that one was “likely a false positive.”
“We do not know how the deer was exposed to SARS-CoV-2. It is possible they were exposed through people, the environment, other deer, or another animal species,” the Center said.
The Global Times found an expert to speculate that deer could unleash a new wave of coronavirus infections on the human population of the United States:
Jin Dongyan, a biomedical professor at the University of Hong Kong, told the Global Times that certain mammal such as cats, dogs, mink and deer were susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, with infections reported in Europe and Asia.
But in most cases, they were infected with the virus from infected people, and we should be concerned whether American white-tailed deer will become another possible reservoir or host for the virus which will then pass it to human beings, Jin said.
In the summer of 2020, several countries in Europe including Denmark and the Netherlands were reporting cases of mink being infected with the SARS-CoV-2, and Dutch government reported that at least two people had caught COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] from mink in the Netherlands. Jin said that it’s possible for deer to become intermediate hosts in the future, which may lead to a new wave of the pandemic after they infected people.
National Geographic noted on Sunday that none of the deer appeared to be sick, so they “probably had asymptomatic infections” and “likely had encountered the virus and then fought it off.”
The USDA told National Geographic the risk of animals such as the white-tailed deer spreading the Wuhan coronavirus to humans is “considered low,” although there is always a chance the virus could mutate into a new strain that is more transmissible.
USDA researchers speculated the deer could have contracted the virus by drinking contaminated wastewater. The USDA said further studies are planned to establish how the deer became infected and if they can pass the virus along to other animals or humans.
Until now, mink are the only animals definitively established to have contracted SARS-CoV-2 infections in the wild, and possibly transmitting the disease to humans. Thousands of mink were euthanized and the mink breeding industry was shut down in the Netherlands as a result last summer.
This is a source of geopolitical controversy because animal-to-human transmission was discussed as the “most likely” source of the pandemic by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and Chinese virologists, but no evidence of such transmission has been found after a year and a half of frantic searching.
Of the four states considered by the USDA study, Michigan had the highest percentage of deer with coronavirus antibodies. Bridge Michigan on Sunday said there was “no cause for alarm” and quoted Michigan State University veterinary medicine professor Srinan Sreevatsan noting “there are other things you can get from deer,” so “it’s best to have good hygienic practice” in any encounters with them. Sreevatsan advised wearing a mask while processing deer meat and “thoroughly” cleaning anything the carcass touches.