COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Researchers with the Ohio State University have found deer infected with COVID-19 in at least six locations throughout the state.  

According to a study published in Nature, scientists have detected infection by at least three variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 in free-ranging white-tailed deer in six northeast Ohio locations.

The study states that if wild deer can become infected “leads toward the idea that we might actually have established a new maintenance host outside humans,” said Andrew Bowman, associate professor of veterinary preventive medicine at The Ohio State University and senior author of the paper.

“Based on evidence from other studies, we knew they were being exposed in the wild and that in the lab we could infect them and the virus could transmit from deer to deer. Here, we’re saying that in the wild, they are infected,” Bowman said. “And if they can maintain it, we have a new potential source of SARS-CoV-2 coming in to humans. That would mean that beyond tracking what’s in people, we’ll need to know what’s in the deer, too. It could complicate future mitigation and control plans for COVID-19.”

Previous research led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture had shown evidence of antibodies in wild deer. 

Researchers tested 360 white-tailed deer in nine northeast Ohio locations and detected genetic material from at least three different strains of the virus in 129 (35.8%) of the deer sampled.

“The working theory based on our sequences is that humans are giving it to deer, and apparently we gave it to them several times,” Bowman said. “We have evidence of six different viral introductions into those deer populations. It’s not that a single population got it once and it spread.”

That paper states that the white-tailed deer tested for this study were part of a population control initiative, so they are not a transmission threat.

With an estimated 600,000 white-tailed deer in Ohio and 30 million in the United States Bowman said this sampling focused on locations close to dense human populations and is not representative of all free-ranging deer.