How funding cuts and public apathy threaten CWD research
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was first identified in Canada at a Saskatchewan elk farm in 1996, and since then it has infected wild deer and elk in the province, as well as in Alberta. The fatal disease has also found its way into Manitoba, as well as a game farm in Quebec. Caused by deformed proteins known as prions, the highly infectious disease spreads through cervid populations via bodily fluids. And as with the COVID-19 pandemic, no one can agree for certain where it originated.
CWD was first found in captive cervids in the U.S. in the late 1960s, followed by wild deer starting in 1981. Many game farm owners argue the disease has always been present in wild populations, contending we are only seeing more cases these days because there’s more widespread testing. Since there’s no known way to actually treat CWD or prevent it from spreading, opinions also vary on how to control it.
Early on, governments in both Saskatchewan and Alberta undertook massive culls to slow the spread, especially within mule deer herds. The effectiveness of the culls was questionable, however, and many hunters became outraged by the resulting decline in deer populations and hunting opportunities. Now both provinces are stepping back from such control efforts and instead concentrating more on monitoring. That has researchers deeply worried—and apparent public indifference is not helping their cause.
Already, research funding is drying up, potentially hampering efforts to better understand CWD and find ways to control it. Last summer, the University of Alberta saw $500,000 cut from its prion research program, money that had previously come from the provincially funded Alberta Prion Research Institute. The shortfall was covered by two provincial grants, with the university kicking in another $112,000. As Alberta’s ruling United Conservative Party tightens purse strings, however, there’s no guarantee such government funding will continue.
At the forefront of research right now is the quest for a CWD vaccine; so far, there have been some promising results in slowing down the onset of the disease, but a vaccine remains elusive. It also remains unclear whether humans can contract CWD, as is the case with a similar prion-based disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (better known as mad cow disease).
While researchers warn CWD could take a considerable amount of time to manifest in a human, infections seem unlikely given that hunters have already been potentially exposed to the disease for more than 40 years. That said, researchers recently saw it transfer to macaque monkeys, which are biologically similar to humans.
In Alberta, CWD has been found in wild mule deer, whitetails, moose and elk, and there’s concern now it will jump to caribou populations. Since caribou are a herd animal—and with most of Canada’s caribou species in severe decline—the chance of entire populations getting wiped out is very real. Even with continued funding, however, is there anything researchers and wildlife managers can do to prevent an infection in caribou herds? The current answer is no. At best, CWD’s progress into caribou country can only be slowed.
As they were with COVID-19, many people are growing weary of the media coverage surrounding CWD, especially when it seems there’s no way to stop the disease anyway. Like it or not, much of today’s wildlife management is based on public opinion, and researchers need CWD to be viewed as a crisis for government funding to continue. But most people no longer views it as a crisis, and there’s little outcry about a lack of funding for research and control.
As it stands, there may be no point anyway in spending millions if there’s no danger to humans and there’s little chance of stopping the disease in its tracks. And without public outcry, the fate of Alberta’s CWD research may well come down to the outcome of May’s provincial election—the incumbent UCP government has made it clear CWD management and funding are not among its priorities.