UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State researchers are urging hunters to use caution on the heels of a study that suggests white-tailed deer could carry the virus that causes COVID-19.

Penn State researchers said a study out of Iowa that found more than 80% of whitetails sampled in different parts of the state between Dec. 2000 and January 2021 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

The findings suggest that deer may be a reservoir for the virus to keep circulating, which could cause new strains to emerge, affecting wildlife and perhaps humans, researchers said.

“This is the first direct evidence of SARS-CoV-2 virus in any free-living species, and our findings have important implications for the ecology and long-term persistence of the virus,” said Suresh Kuchipudi, associate director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at Penn State. “These include spillover to other free-living or captive animals and potential spillback to human hosts. Of course, this highlights that many urgent steps are needed to monitor the spread of the virus in deer and prevent spillback to humans.”

Researchers say there is currently no evidence to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 can pass from deer to humans. But hunters may want to take precautions. Some of those precautions, researchers say, include wearing protective gloves when field dressing a deer and getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Previous studies by the USDA have shown that 40% of white-tailed deer had coronavirus antibodies, but researchers said the presence of the antibodies only indicates indirect exposure and does not prove infection or an ability for the virus to transmit.