After mink, should we be concerned about a Covid epidemic in deer? According to a study previously published on the biorxiv.org site, these mammals already serve as reservoirs for the virus. At least in the United States. Undoubtedly, the American researchers carried out RT-PCR tests on samples taken from 283 animals (132 captives and 151 in the wild) in Iowa. Result: About a third of the lymph nodes analyzed contained the genetic material of SARS-Cov -2. The Covid contamination rate is said to have skyrocketed in late 2020 in the middle of the hunting season.
This is the first time that a study has reported on a Covid epidemic in wild animals. Until now, the most problematic contaminations concerned intensive mink farming: healers affected by Covid had infected the animals first; The virus then spread between animals and was later transmitted to humans, forcing health authorities in several countries to carry out a mass slaughter.
Should we expect a similar succession of events with the Iowa deer? “Our work raises the possibility of reverse zoonosis (that is, the transmission of a pathogen from animals to humans),” the authors warn. But this is only a hypothetical scenario at the moment. “Be careful, this is a prepublished work, reacts Muriel Vayssier-Taussat, head of the department of animal health at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE). “On this subject, studies have already been carried out that were not sustained from the methodological point of view,” says the scientist. However, this is not the first time that the American deer has been identified as a possible reservoir.
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Last July, another American study, pre-published on the site biorxiv.org, concluded that 40% of the white-tailed deer tested in the states of Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania had antibodies against Covid, a sign that They had been contaminated. Therefore, the new study goes in the same direction as the previous one. It also provides some new elements: the researchers were able to identify more than ten different viral lines in the samples, corresponding to those circulating in humans at the same time. This concomitance supports the thesis of contamination from humans to animals, followed by the spread of the virus in animals.
Are the hunters to blame?
However, it does not explain how humans have contaminated animals in the wild. The peak of deer in the positive tests coincides with the hunting season. However, hunters have little contact with the animals a priori since they kill them from a distance. “We cannot exclude contamination by hunters responsible for taking samples before they are analyzed in the laboratory. Especially since the virus is circulating strongly in the states affected by the study. Perhaps also contamination. It was caused by water or food used by hunters to attract their prey, ”says Alexis Lécu, head of the infectious diseases group at the association of zoo veterinarians in Europe.
In any case, the US study has prompted surveillance by health agencies. “Many samples will be analyzed to see if we have the same in Europe. But for the moment, this does not correspond to the reality on the ground, estimates Alexis Lécu. No case, for example, of positive deer in semi-captivity. In other words, in grasslands of several hectares, it is in zoos where the animals are more likely to be in contact with the virus, but even in this environment, the most sensitive species such as the great apes remain little affected until now. When they are, the clinical signs pass quickly. In fact, no primate affected has died as a result of an infection “, details the scientist.
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“The more we do the tests, the more we run the risk of finding positive animals,” explains Muriel Vayssier-Taussat. However, there is currently no proven passage from an animal reservoir to humans, other than the initial hypothesis of bats and cases of transmission from mink to humans. “In the United States, vaccination in zoos has still begun. But there are more contaminated animals than in Europe and the risk / benefit ratio is different”, analyzes Alexis Lécu. On this side of the Atlantic, we are not in the same situation .
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