Joyce calls for CWD study

To manage the growing problem of chronic wasting disease in deer, many people want the state to invest in a cure, not a cull.

U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, also announced he is trying to get Congress involved in Pennsylvania’s deer dilemma.

Joyce offered a solution Tuesday to the ongoing issue between the 13th District hunting community and the Pennsylvania Game Commission by co-sponsoring legislation that would implement a federal study of chronic wasting disease.

The measure instructs the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to partner with the National Academies of Science to study and identify the ways CWD is transmitted between wild, captive and farmed deer, caribou, elk and moose.

In addition, hunters have high hopes for a scientist who claims to be on track to find a vaccine for CWD in three years.

Dr. Frank Bastian, LSU clinical professor of neurosurgery and pathology professor of veterinary science, has an agreement with the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsy­lvania to develop the vaccine.

Joyce pushes for action

On the federal level, a press release from Joyce states he is calling for the House to take up the legislation immediately so the Pennsylvania Game Commission no longer feels compelled to take matters into its own hands on CWD.

“The appropriate response to CWD has recently become a contentious issue in the counties of Blair and Bedford,” Joyce stated. “In late January, the Pennsylvania Game Commission announced the launch of a pilot study, which aimed to enlist U.S. Department of Agriculture sharpshooters to eliminate (potentially) thousands of deer in the region. The goal of the pilot study was to examine if lowering the deer population can control the spread of CWD, which has no known cure at this point.”

The study was halted after the intervention of state Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, and the lack of support from landowners in the region. Sharpshooters needed permission to access private land in order to set up baiting stations that would have helped them as they eliminate the deer.

However, the Mirror last weekend reported that the sharpshooters might return next year to finish the study. The possibility of the continuation of the Game Commission’s study brought more complaints from hunters in the 13th District, prompting Joyce to get involved.

“Representative Gregory has kept me well-informed on this issue, and I was glad he was able to put a temporary stop to the Game Commission’s study on behalf of our constituents,” Joyce stated. “That said, the Game Commission is also correct, and we cannot just let chronic wasting disease continue to expand its footprint in our region without addressing it. The legislation I am co-sponsoring today will allow us to devote all the possible resources necessary into studying this disease and developing a strategy to combat it, but will do so at no detriment to the hunters in the 13th District. It is very possible that having the USDA remove thousands of deer from our region is unnecessary, making the federal study a more prudent course of action.”

Scientist claims breakthrough

Bastian’s recent discovery apparently proves the fatal brain disease is caused by a bacteria, not a misfolded protein called a prion as was universally held for decades as the best theory.

For Blair and Bedford landowners who thwarted the Game Commission’s large-scale removal of deer, supporting the partnership between Bastian and the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania is a good next step, said Matt Johnson of Roaring Spring.

Johnson is one of the hunters and landowners who led efforts that forced the Game Commission to delay its study, which aimed to determine whether smaller deer populations can control chronic wasting disease numbers in the state.

“There are so many different things happening now,” Johnson said. “We are re-establishing and figuring out what we can do.”

Bastian made a splash Feb. 5 with a press conference in Harrisburg where it was announced that an agreement between Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania was made for raising funds to develop the vaccine.

Bastian spoke with the Mirror this week. He talked about developing an injectable chronic wasting disease vaccination for farm-raised deer in three years.

“What I found was the cause of the disease,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my career looking for it. My big breakthrough is that we have been able to culture the bacteria from tissue infected with chronic wasting disease. We innoculated the isolated bacteria into sheep and goats and produced the disease. Then we were able to re-isolate it from those tissues, fulfilling the scientific criteria for causality.”

The cause is a bacteria, a spiroplasma, defined by the fact that it has DNA and RNA. It’s only 40 nanometers in size. For comparison, the herpes virus is 140 nanometers, Bastian said.

“No one has known what the agent was that caused CWD,” he said, adding that it has always made more sense that the disease was caused by a bacteria that can reproduce and grow.

“I’ve grown this spiroplasma on a culture, formed colonies. So I’ve demonstrated it is a bacteria,” he said. “Since we can grow it in culture, and isolated it, we can produce antibodies against it. And then create a diagnostic test and also vaccines to prevent it. That is not that far down the road. It can be done fairly shortly. In fact, we have a three-year plan. Obviously we can’t do this without funding.”

He did not have an estimate of the cost except to say that a lab technician to direct the operation costs at least $75,000 a year, and the more technicians on board, the faster the vaccine can be developed.

Oral dose may be better

The injectable vaccination could be developed in three years, he said, but all told, it may take more than three years to get the cure into the wild deer. An oral vaccination for wild deer may be more efficient than injections to reach wild populations. Then there would be the USDA process for commercializing it and distributing it to agencies to reach wild deer.

And by that time, if the spread of the disease continues the pattern identified by the commission — doubling in positive tests year by year — there could be a great number of deer infected before the vaccination becomes available.

According to data collected by the commission, the number of positive tests for infected deer doubled each year from two in 2013 to 76 in 2017.

Those are only annual samples. There is no clear proof of just how prevalent the disease is.

The vast majority of those cases were found in the commission’s South Central region including Blair and Bedford.

However, there are only 45 positive tests counted so far for 2018, but all testing from hunting seasons are not back yet, according to the commission. The commission is still waiting for results from more than 3,000 samples and hundreds of road-killed deer from the last few months of the year.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

COMMENTS