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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WJW) – Scientists have detected 3 COVID-19 variants in Ohio deer.

According to a press release from The Ohio State University, white-tailed deer in 6 Northeast Ohio locations were found to have COVID.

Based on genomic sequencing of the samples collected between January and March 2021, researchers determined that variants infecting wild deer matched strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that had been prevalent in Ohio COVID-19 patients at the time.

Sample collection occurred before the Delta variant was widespread, and that variant was not detected in the deer.

The team is testing more samples to check for new variants as well as older variants, whose continued presence would suggest the virus can set up shop and survive in this species.

The fact that 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.

“And if they can maintain it, we have a new potential source of SARS-CoV-2 coming into humans.”

“It could complicate future mitigation and control plans for COVID-19.”

 A lot of unknowns remain: how the deer got infected, whether they can infect humans and other species, how the virus behaves in the animals’ bodies, and whether it’s a transient or long-term infection.

The research team took nasal swabs from 360 white-tailed deer in nine northeast Ohio locations. Using PCR testing methods, the scientists detected genetic material from at least three different strains of the virus in 129 (35.8%) of the deer sampled.

The research team did not list the locations of the infected deer.