Utah mule deer is 1st in U.S. to test positive for COVID-19

The female deer was tested in Morgan County.

State wildlife employees swabbed the noses of nearly 300 mule deer last year, and recent test results confirmed the country’s first case of COVID-19 in the species, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources announced Monday.

Only one mule deer tested positive, but blood samples from “several” other Utah mule deer revealed apparent coronavirus antibodies, indicating that they had previously been infected, according to the wildlife division.

It’s unclear how many deer had apparent antibodies in their system; state veterinarian Ginger Stout said the results would need to undergo more testing to confirm the finding. Researchers had previously only found the virus in white-tailed deer.

“There is also no evidence that animals, including mule deer, are playing a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people,” state veterinarian Ginger Stout said in a statement, “and the available research suggests that the likelihood of getting COVID-19 from an animal is quite low.”

The Utah mule deer tests, which included blood sampling and nasal swabs, were conducted in November and December as part of the wildlife division’s annual big game capture, according to the wildlife division.

They came around the time a study announced that the coronavirus had been found in white-tailed deer across 15 states. The New York Times reported that researchers were concerned that since the virus seemed to easily infect the country’s ubiquitous white-tailed deer, that the deer “could become a reservoir for the virus and a potential source of new variants.”

White-tailed deer live throughout much of the contiguous U.S. and Mexico, while mule deer are primarily found in the western U.S.

Stout said in an interview that the wildlife division’s sample size was too small to know if the coronavirus spreads as easily in mule deer as it apparently does in white-tailed deer. Still, the results do indicate that mule deer are “susceptible” to the virus but don’t appear to be dying from it. Those that were tested in Utah also did not appear to be sick, she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will direct any future studies, Stout noted.

The single, infected Utah deer was a female found in Morgan County. She tested positive for the delta variant.

It’s unclear how she was exposed to coronavirus; she may have become infected through a person, another deer or another type of animal.

There is no evidence a person can get COVID-19 by eating an infected animal’s meat, the wildlife division advised.

“However, hunters should always practice good food hygiene when processing harvested wildlife,” according to a news release.

That means people should:

  • Prevent wildlife and domestic animals — including hunting dogs — from contacting each other.

  • Abstain from eating meat from animals that appeared sick or were found already dead.

  • Keep meat clean and cool it quickly.

  • Avoid cutting through an animal’s backbone or spinal tissue and eating an animal’s brain.

  • Wear rubber or disposable gloves when cleaning meat, and after, always wash hands with soap and water.