White-tailed deer can get COVID-19. Is the meat safe for hunters to eat? Here's what you need to know.

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
White-tailed deer can be infected with and spread COVID-19, but its meat is likely safe for hunters to eat.

Agriculture researchers have determined that white-tailed deer can become infected with COVID-19 and spread the disease. While early deer hunting seasons are underway in Kansas, experts say the meat is likely safe to eat.

The deer population is "highly susceptible" to COVID-19 infection and "transmit it very efficiently" to noninfected pen-mates, said Juergen Richt, who is the director of the Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases at Kansas State University.

"So not only do we know now that these companion animals, zoo animals, white-tailed deer, are highly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, but also wild animals are now apparently seropositive and carry the virus," he said last week during a media briefing by The University of Kansas Health System. "There is now evidence that the virus, which transmitted very efficiently between humans, also can infect animals, and not only domestic animals but also animals in the wild."

More:Kansas-shot buck has the second-largest antler size of any hunter-taken deer on record

Coronavirus spread in white-tailed deer is of particular concern to researchers because of their abundant population, totaling about 30 million, and close proximity to humans.

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture analyzed serum samples from free-range white-tailed deer for COVID-19 antibodies. Antibodies were detected in 33% of samples, which were collected from deer populations in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania between January 2020 and March 2021.

The federal agency discouraged extrapolating the results to the U.S. deer population as a whole.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture didn't respond Tuesday to questions about whether any Kansas deer have tested positive for COVID-19.

"There is no evidence that animals, including deer, are playing a significant role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to people," the USDA reports. "Based on the available information, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low."

It is unknown how the deer were exposed to the virus. The USDA study didn't focus on whether the infected deer appeared ill, but there were no reports of clinical illness associated with COVID-19 in the deer populations surveyed.

More:A mother’s COVID infection led to Guillain-Barre syndrome. She's still fighting for health

Hunters encouraged to practice good hygiene when harvesting and processing animals

Good hygiene important with COVID-19 in deer population

Regardless, hunters should practice good hygiene when harvesting and processing animals, experts say.

"If you as a hunter kill an animal, which is infected, and you got that animal, and you take out the lungs, etc., where the virus resides, there's a chance that you get infected," Richt said. "However, the meat, the venison, is most likely clean and you don't have a high chance to get infected."

"There is no evidence," the USDA reports, "that people can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating meat from an animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, including wild game meat hunted in the United States."

Some deer hunting seasons have already started in Kansas.

The youth and disability deer season began Saturday and runs through Sunday, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Muzzleloader and archery seasons start Monday.

The pre-rut white-tailed antlerless-only season is in October, while regular firearm season is in December. Fort Riley, Fort Leavenworth and Smoky Hill military bases have additional season schedules.

Some pets and zoo animals, especially large cats and primates, have been infected.

Richt said there have been no reported cases of a human infection from a companion animal. However, there have been outbreaks at mink farms where minks transmitted mutated versions of the virus to humans.

More:What's the holdup in Kansas? State, cities sitting on $8 billion in federal COVID aid.

Hawkinson and Richt said there is no evidence that ticks and mosquitos spread COVID-19 because there is little if any virus in the blood.

K-State published the first COVID-19 research in the world on mosquitos, said Stephen Higgs, K-State's vice president for research and director of the university's Biosecurity Research Institute.

Higgs said researchers injected hundreds of mosquitos with the virus, and "we were delighted that the virus couldn't infect the mosquitos."

COVID vaccines are better than Ivermectin

Public health officials continue to discourage attempts to use livestock Ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment noted last week that calls to poison control centers and emergency rooms visits are on the rise, despite warnings from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against using Ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID.

"Ivermectin has been approved to treat specific skin conditions in humans, such as rosacea, head lice, or some parasitic worms," the KDHE said in a Facebook post. "In livestock, ivermectin is used as an anti-parasite medicine. Livestock drugs, which can be found in livestock supply centers, are highly concentrated for large animals and can be highly toxic in humans."

Despite the health department's warning, the comment section of the Facebook post was rife with people supporting the drug.

More:Topeka sewage sees high percentage of genetic remnants of COVID-19 compared to 330 others

"Ivermectin is used basically to eliminate intestinal parasites — worms — from livestock," Higgs said.

The drug is very effective at that anti-parasitic job, both in the animal kingdom and in human medicine, Richt said. Meanwhile, some cell culture studies have show that it has some effect against COVID, but its efficacy "is not very good."

"In animal studies ... it has not been shown to be efficacious or highly therapeutic for SARS-CoV-2, and in human clinical trials, the jury is still out," Richt said. "Some studies say it's not working well; other studies say it's maybe working."

"We don't know whether it works it humans, so using a drug and buying a drug which is formulated for horses or cattle or other animals and using it as a human is not a very smart thing to do," he said.

Richt said his team tests many repurposed drugs, and it is common for drugs to be up to 100 times more effective in cell culture then fail in animal models of COVID-19.

Hawkinson said there is a difference between laboratory activity and giving a drug to a human.

"We should note that a lot of drugs, for a lot of things, in cell culture in those early stages of research and development look to have activity," Hawkinson said, adding that many of those drugs later "slip up and eventually do not come to market."

Bulk of evidence doesn't support ivermectin

There are ongoing trials, but the bulk of the evidence does not support using ivermectin, Hawkinson said.

"We need further good, best evidence to really put this question to rest, is it beneficial or is it not beneficial," he said.

Poison control centers have reported an increase in human exposures from veterinary Ivermectin products, according to the CDC. There has also been a 24-fold increase from pre-pandemic levels in retail pharmacy dispensing of Ivermectin.

"The best way to protect yourself is using a safe and efficacious vaccine," Richt said. "I think using instead a drug with no real, clearly shown efficacy in COVID-19 patients — and on top could be poisonous, toxic to you — doesn't make any sense."

More:How many kids are vaccinated in Kansas? Here's a COVID-19 breakdown for eligible children.

Hawkinson said if your doctor is promoting Ivermectin over the COVID-19 vaccines, then it is time to find a new doctor.

"There is nothing to support that Ivermectin has any effect, any beneficial effect, anywhere similar to what we know the vaccines do," he said.

Nevertheless, he has heard of physicians prescribing Ivermectin to patients.

"Certainly doctors are prescribing it," Hawkinson said, "but it's not based on the most-consistent evidence that would show that there is no benefit of Ivermectin, either in protection against COVID-19 or treatment of COVID-19, at this point in time."