SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, has been discovered for the first time in free-ranging California wildlife.
The virus was detected in a hunter-harvested mule deer in El Dorado County. The deer, which did not display any signs of illness, was sampled by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) for chronic wasting disease (CWD) surveillance and tested negative for CWD.
While SARS-CoV-2 has previously been confirmed in pets and zoo animals in California, this marks the first time it has been found in free-ranging wildlife. Following reports of the virus in free-ranging white-tailed deer and mule deer in other states and Canadian provinces, the CDFW tested archived deer samples for SARS-CoV-2. These samples, collected as part of the CWD surveillance program, revealed that CWD has not been detected in California’s deer or elk populations.
Initial testing for SARS-CoV-2 was carried out at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis, with confirmatory testing conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa.
Dr. Brandon Munk, a senior wildlife veterinarian with the CDFW, stated that deer can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and transmit it to other deer without falling ill themselves. However, he does not see the virus as a threat to deer populations. The CDFW is working with partners to understand the potential implications of SARS-CoV-2 infections in wildlife for both animals and humans.
There is no evidence that people can contract COVID-19 from consuming meat from an infected animal. However, hunters are advised to exercise caution when handling and dressing game, as well as practice good food hygiene when processing their animals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that the risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2 to humans is considered low. The USDA APHIS has been monitoring SARS-CoV-2 infections in free-ranging deer since 2021, and the CDFW is collaborating with the USDA APHIS and other organizations to sample and test more California deer for the virus.