Coronavirus circulating in Sask. white-tailed deer population, researchers say

A research team says it has found proof that the virus that causes COVID-19 is circulating among wild white-tailed deer in Saskatchewan.

Positive swabs were found in four white-tailed deer harvested in 2021, according to the University of Saskatchewan.

That represents two per cent of the 227 white-tailed deer swabbed in the province.

Ten per cent of 62 white-tailed deer tested for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies also had positive results — meaning they were either previously exposed or were currently infected.

While the novel coronavirus has been confirmed in wildlife in other jurisdictions, the findings represent a first for Saskatchewan.

“For some reason, deer are susceptible to infection, and not only that, when the virus gets into deer it spreads through the population very rapidly,” Vikram Misra, a virologist at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine said in a news release announcing the findings.

“The concern is if it gets into a wildlife reservoir, then the virus will obviously change in very, very unpredictable ways. And then there’s always the possibility of it going back into people from this reservoir,” said Misra.

The research team includes members from the U of S, Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

WCVM researcher Dr. Emily Jenkins said early in the pandemic she received questions from Indigenous people who harvest wildlife concerned about the potential impact of COVDI-19 on their diet or livelihoods.

“We initiated this surveillance to reassure people about the wildlife that they’re handling and consuming,” Jenkins said.

According to Jenkins, SARS-CoV-2 isn’t foodborne and the risk of contracting it from harvested deer is minimal.

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