On a recent evening at the MassWildlife field headquarters in Westborough, Mass., Martin Feehan stood face-to-face with a 160-pound dead buck, splayed out on the loading dock.
The deer died of a broken leg, after it was apparently hit by a car in Needham. Feehan, a deer and moose biologist, had brought it to headquarters to test it for COVID.
He took a long white nasal swab out of its packaging, and stuck it up the deer’s nose.
“We go all the way in, and the idea is to saturate as much as the swab as possible,” he said, rotating the swab in tiny circles. “Just like every sampling that’s done for humans.”
Feehan pulled the swab out, covered in blood and mucus, and stored it in a vial.
This COVID test is bound for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado. Feehan will also send two samples of the deer’s blood to test for antibodies.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been found in white-tailed deer across the country, and Massachusetts is now one of 41 states participating in a national effort to study the prevalence of the virus in deer.
Scientists know that deer can be infected by the virus that causes COVID-19. Now they want to know how it happens, and whether the deer might spread it back to us.