Near and Deer

Is Neighborhood Wildlife Spreading COVID?

From the rapid global spread of COVID-19 to the damage wrought by snarled supply lines, the pandemic provided lesson after lesson in how we’re all connected. Now UMD researchers are investigating another link to the virus, one that might extend even further.

Assistant Professor Travis Gallo and Associate Professor Jennifer Mullinax of the Department of Environmental Science and Technology are tracking deer to find out if they’re spreading COVID and other respiratory illnesses like influenza, or even serving as disease reservoirs that keep such viruses circulating.

Their study is supported by a $3.6 million cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; it’s part of a larger agency effort to create an early warning system of disease spillover from animals to humans.

The researchers will place GPS tracking collars on at least 45 white-tailed deer—a species that earlier UMD research showed frequently beds down in neighborhoods—and take nasal swabs and blood samples for lab testing. The collars will transmit information about deer movements over two years, and combined with human movement data from cell research participants’ phones, will pinpoint locations and times of human-deer encounters.

With a model of how people and deer neighbors move around the landscape, “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,” Gallo says.


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