Biologists dispute buzz over controversial CWD theory

By David Frey

Deer and elk populations throughout North America are vulnerable to chronic wasting disease.
©Courtney Celley/USFWS

A controversial theory about chronic wasting disease has gained new attention after a Pennsylvania hunting organization suggested a cure for the fatal disease may be imminent, but wildlife managers and biologists emphasize that decades of scientific research go against it.

Last month, the group Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania called a press conference in the state capital to announce its support for a controversial theory that chronic wasting disease is caused not by prions, as is widely held, but by a spiroplasma bacterium. The group launched a GoFundMe page to support the work of Frank Bastian, a neuropathologist and animal scientist at Louisiana State University, who believes a vaccine could be developed to combat it.

But the announcement has been met with widespread skepticism.

“While prions still are challenging and there is still plenty to be learned, we would be taking a step backwards in the fight against CWD if we are distracted by nay-sayers. Hundreds of scientists are investigating prion diseases. The evidence is compelling,” wrote TWS member Krysten Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist at Cornell Wildlife Health lab, who created a webpage responding to the recent interest in the theory.

“While the public may become frustrated with the unanswered questions around CWD, the one thing we should agree on is stopping prions from being introduced to new areas,” she wrote. “Prevention is our best strategy.”

The Pennsylvania Game Commission and the state Agriculture Department also responded to the announcement. “Decades of research have provided abundant evidence that prions, or misfolded proteins, are the infectious agent of CWD, and this hypothesis is accepted by state agriculture and wildlife agencies across the U.S. While alternative theories exist, they have not been thoroughly researched,” they said in a press release.

Researchers say they are troubled by Bastian’s work because they have not been able to reproduce his findings. Asked about this, Bastian told Deer & Deer Hunting, “No one has really tried.”

CWD is a fatal disease attacking deer and elk, and it has steadily spread across North America, primarily affecting wild and captive populations of deer and elk.

David Frey is managing editor at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at dfrey@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article. Read more of David's articles here.

You can follow him on Twitter at @davidmfrey.


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