UMD Researchers Awarded $3.6 Million to Study Human-Deer Interactions and COVID Transmission in White-Tailed Deer

Study will track and map overlapping movements of deer and humans throughout the Washington, DC, metro area.

October 3, 2023 Kimbra Cutlip

The COVID-19 pandemic showed the world how interconnected we all are. But there’s another interconnection that’s often overlooked, and that’s the one between wildlife, the environment and humans. Under the One Health concept, ensuring healthy humans, plants, animals and the planet means understanding how we all interact, and how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can evolve and jump between species.

That’s the aim of a new $3.6 million cooperative agreement awarded to University of Maryland researchers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS). The agreement will fund an investigation into how, where and when white-tailed deer interact with humans in and around Washington, D.C. and assess the potential role of white-tailed deer in transmitting SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory pathogens such as influenza viruses, as well as the risk of the deer becoming a reservoir for such viruses.

The study is part of a larger effort by APHIS to build an early warning system to prevent or limit future zoonotic disease outbreaks, and it falls under the agency’s One Health* initiatives.

As the study gets underway this coming winter, researchers Travis Gallo and Jennifer Mullinax in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology will place GPS tracking collars on at least 45 white-tailed deer and take nasal swabs and blood samples for lab analysis.

The collars will transmit information back to the researchers about deer movements over a full two years, and the blood samples will reveal the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 and other diseases in the deer population.

Combining this data with human movement data from cell phones, the researchers will be able to pinpoint locations and times of human-deer encounters. Research teams will also conduct field observations and interviews in areas of high human-deer interaction to better understand the various types of interactions such as feeding, chasing, or pet-deer encounters.

Finally, the team will estimate the potential transmission rates of SARS-CoV-2 between deer and humans by sequencing positive blood samples among the collared deer to understand which strains of the disease are present in deer and how the disease might move between deer and humans.

“We’re trying to put this all into one big picture of how humans and deer move around the landscape and the probability of deer to human disease transmission throughout the landscape across time,” said Gallo, the lead scientist on the grant. “Then we can use a predictive model to ask questions about potential interventions like, controlling the deer population in certain areas, educating people about interacting with deer, or even giving deer vaccines, to predict if we can reduce the risk and rates of disease transmission."

The findings will support decision-makers in mitigating potential disease spread between humans and urban wildlife, including hikers, dog walkers, landowners, and more. In addition, this project will contribute valuable data and surveillance tools to monitor zoonotic diseases beyond SARS-CoV-2.

* This project is part of APHIS’ One Health surveillance and coordination initiative. One Health is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach – working at the local, regional, national, and global levels – with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes. It recognizes the interconnection between animals, people, plants and their shared environment.