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White-tailed deer: a possible reservoir for the coronavirus? | Coronavirus

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As of 2020, animal health officials in the United States are among the first on the continent to test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in white-tailed deer. They benefit from the annual chronic wasting disease (CWD) monitoring and follow-up program that affects deer.

We already knew that white-tailed deer could be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection because, like humans, they have ACE2 receptors. These receptors make it easier for the coronavirus to attach to healthy cells, take control of them and spread through the body.

In the United States, the first results of the analyzes are as unexpected as they are stunning. In Iowa, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases Vivek Kapur says he and his colleagues were so surprised by the results that they doubted for a moment that the test would work.% at 35%.”,”text”:”Results showed positivity rates ranged from 30% to 35%.”}}’>The results showed that the positivity rates ranged from 30% to 35%. That’s the equivalent of one in three white-tailed deer carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus in deer tested in Iowa.

Portrait of Vivek Kapur.

Vivek Kapur is a professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at Pennsylvania State University.

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In light of the American results, wildlife officials in most Canadian provinces have launched sampling campaigns, also taking advantage of wildlife monitoring programs. wasting disease of deer and the hunting season to take samples from white-tailed deer carcasses. In Quebec, samples were taken from 250 deer in the Laurentians and Estrie in November 2021.

Nasal swab from a deer, with a swab.

Nasal swab in a white-tailed deer

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Nasal swabs are taken to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in deer. Then the second sample is a blood sample, for serological tests, to see if the animal has antibodies, if it has been exposed to the virus in the past. »

A quote from Marianne Gagnier, wildlife health biologist Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks – Quebec
Portrait of Marianne Gagnier.

Marianne Gagnier, wildlife health biologist at the Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks – Quebec

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In the batch of samples taken in Estrie, three were declared positive in December 2021. These will be the first confirmed cases of infection of wild animals by the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Canada. Since then, four cases have been officially recorded in Saskatchewan, five in Ontario and three in Manitoba. As the analyzes of the samples continue, it can be assumed that other cases could subsequently be identified in white-tailed deer in Canada.

As for the results of the serological tests carried out on the samples taken in Estrie, they revealed that approximately 9% of the deer had antibodies, and consequently had been exposed to the virus prior to the sampling.

A tongue soaked in blood.

Blood sample from a white-tailed deer

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For now, we know that the virus has spread from human to animal, then from one white-tailed deer to another. The route taken by the virus to infect animals is unclear. As described by Vivek Kapur, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases, they can be multiple.

The deer could have come into contact with items already infected by a human, an apple thrown out the window, for example, or the faeces of a human who would have relieved himself in the forest.

The deer do not follow our hygiene rules. Contact with one of these elements would be enough to expose them to the virus. »

A quote from Vivek Kapur, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at Pennsylvania State University

How to explain, moreover, such a wide gap between the positivity rate observed in deer in the United States, more than 30%, and that observed in Canada, which is established at less than 2%?

Daniel Leclair, director of the ecotoxicology and wildlife health division at Environment and Climate Change Canada, explains that various factors, such as the rate of infection in the local human population, the density of deer per square kilometre, the period of sampling and deer activity, are all factors that can influence the risk of transmission. It also depends on the proximity between the deer population and the urban or peri-urban environment.

Portrait of Daniel Leclair.

Daniel Leclair, Director of the Ecotoxicology and Wildlife Health Division, Environment and Climate Change Canada

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The few infected white-tailed deer observed in a controlled environment show no apparent symptoms of the disease. Nothing indicates, for the moment, that the virus was transformed in contact with the animal. The one that reached white-tailed deer in Quebec was from the Delta variant line. American researchers noted, in a prepublication on the subject at the beginning of February 2022, the presence of the Omicron variant in white-tailed deer on Staten Island, a distant suburb of New York.

To date, no cases of transmission from animals to humans have been observed. There are concerns, however, that the white-tailed deer population could serve as a reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As Daniel Leclair of Environment and Climate Change Canada points out, it would be important to be able to carry out continuous monitoring to check whether the virus could have mutations that would increase, for example, its transmissibility, its virulence, and have an impact in wildlife or in humans.

For hunters, increased attention is required. Not so much for the consumption of the meat, since the virus will not survive a good cooking, but rather during the handling of the carcass. As Daniel Leclair points out: They must take precautions to avoid being in direct contact or being exposed, for example, to splashes when handling respiratory tissues. So wearing a well-fitting mask is recommended, but also other protective equipment when doing butchering, trimming carcasses, making sure they do it, for example in ventilated places.

It is understood that unlike transmission in farm animals, monitoring a virus in wild animals is more complex, its spread and its development more difficult to anticipate. Vivek Kapur of Pennsylvania State University adds that once the virus has spread among wild animals, the ability to predict which direction the virus will take is limited. Who will the virus infect? Who will adapt to it? Who is going to transmit what to whom, it becomes very difficult to follow.

Two white-tailed deer in a field.

white-tailed deer

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When the disease becomes established in wild species, as with the white-tailed deer, it becomes almost impossible to eradicate it. »

A quote from Vivek Kapur, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at Pennsylvania State University

With millions of white-tailed deer roaming the North American continent, we understand that the stakes are high.

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