Wisconsin scientists concerned deer with COVID-19 could pose health risk to humans

NOW: Wisconsin scientists concerned deer with COVID-19 could pose health risk to humans

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Across the country, deer have tested positive for COVID-19 in several states. But there are new concerns that those animals could re-infect human beings.

Data shows white-tailed deer live in every U.S. continental state, including Wisconsin. That's part of the reason scientists find it concerning that the animals can become infected with COVID-19.

"It's likely the deer population might act as a reservoir for the future. So that means they can carry the virus and the virus can reproduce within that deer population and get mutated, and that can spill back on the human," said Dr. Nilanjan Lodh, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Laboratory Science at Marquette University's College of Health Sciences.

"So that's the big, unknown question right now, is: What is the risk of spill back from deer to people?" asked Thomas Yuill, an emeritus professor of pathobiological sciences at UW-Madison.

Yuill said researchers have speculated how that could happen: the most likely scenario being contact between hunters and the deer they catch. But there are ways to prevent that.

"When you're cleaning the deer, gutting it, preparing it and then later butchering it completely -- wear gloves. Probably wear a mask, as well," Yuill said.

He said he's surprised at how widespread the virus is in the deer population.

Preliminary research showed some deer even had the highly contagious Omicron variant.

"I think that is real concern," Lodh said.

Lodh worries about those who are unvaccinated.

"Those people might be a lot more vulnerable if those deadly variants might come out because of this animal-human interaction," he said.

People have passed COVID-19 on to their pets, and zoo animals have gotten sick from the virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low. The virus can spread from people to animals during close contact.

The CDC says more studies are needed to understand if and how different animals could be affected by COVID-19. People with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should avoid contact with animals, including pets, livestock and wildlife.

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