Talking Points

Animals likely started the pandemic. They'll likely keep it going, too.

Since the pandemic hit, a number of countries have pursued a "zero COVID-19" strategy — like New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, and China. The idea is to do a hard lockdown to stop transmission entirely, so that controls can be mostly abandoned afterwards. As a temporary strategy to buy time until vaccines are available, that makes a good deal of sense. The American COVID death rate is 10 times that of Vietnam, 34 times that of Australia, and 384 times that of New Zealand.

But unfortunately, the coronavirus will almost certainly be with us for the foreseeable future — unlike smallpox, it will never be eradicated. One reason is animal reservoirs. The New York Times reports on a new study estimating that about 80 percent of the white-tailed deer in the state of Iowa tested positive for the coronavirus. It seems somehow a deer caught it, and the virus is so incredibly contagious it ripped through the whole population.

Now, this isn't the first time the coronavirus has been found in animals. Mink and ferrets seem to be particularly susceptible. But the depth of the deer outbreak just cements the reality that the coronavirus is never going to be fully eradicated, at least with any known technology. Viruses like polio only infect humans, so if enough people are vaccinated, the virus will die out permanently. Doing this actually worked with smallpox. But a virus that has multiple wild animal reservoirs — particular white-tailed deer, one of the most populous animal species in North America — means boundless opportunities for transmission.

So far there is no evidence of a deer reinfecting a person with COVID, but it's not impossible, and it only takes one infection to spark a mass outbreak. After all, the whole pandemic likely started with some kind of animal-to-human transmission. The way forward is mass vaccination, which turns COVID into something akin to the flu — just another annoying minor disease we have to deal with from time to time. Alas, that seems to be the best we can do.