This guest column is by Michael T. Osterholm of the University of Minnesota.
Rep. Steve Green, in a Nov. 3 guest column ("Let's not limit our options on CWD"), discussed his recent attendance at a joint House and Senate Environmental and Natural Resources Committee meeting on chronic wasting disease (CWD). He concluded that the main takeaway is that there are still far more questions than answers on this issue.
Rep. Green is right on the mark with regard to that fact. However, his conclusion that researchers at the University of Minnesota are unwilling to consider the findings of Dr. Frank Bastian, former neuropathologist at Louisiana State University, with regard to the cause of CWD is not the case.
Green wrote, “Our flagship institution has chosen to not explore what could be a simple and less expensive solution to CWD that is within reach.” Unfortunately, Dr. Bastian joins a historical list of other misguided scientists who report findings regarding new infectious diseases that are just plain wrong. Dr. Bastian’s suggestion that a type of bacterium, Spiroplasma, is the cause of CWD has been studied vigorously by multiple leading infectious disease groups in the U.S. and Canada, and his conclusions do not hold up under the rigor of well-conducted scientific research. Rather, the data supporting the role that a prion, a type of infectious protein similar to the cause of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (i.e., “mad cow” disease), causes CWD are overwhelming.
Unfortunately, as Dr. Bastian’s research is discredited by these studies, he comes up with new reasons that all of the other scientists in the world trying to replicate his work are in error.
I’m all too familiar with these “lone scientists” who claim they are the only ones who can find a certain test result and everyone else is wrong. In the early days of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) research discovery, several scientists were adamant that HIV did not cause AIDS, but rather the disease was due to toxic chemicals associated with illicit intravenous (IV) drug use.
I experienced this in a personally painful way when my 65-year-old aunt, a Catholic nun in San Francisco, died of AIDS associated with an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion she received in 1983. One of these lone scientists publicly judged my dying aunt as someone with suspicious character because she obviously had to have been an undisclosed IV drug abuser.
I have detailed in my 2017 book, “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” other similar situations in which lone individuals report to have discovered the cause of new disease conditions, but their findings could not be replicated by any other reputable scientist. Responding to persons like Dr. Bastian is not a new problem to those of us tackling serious emerging infectious diseases.
We have a number of challenges – both scientifically and from a public policy perspective – as to how to respond to CWD. I commend the Minnesota Legislature for its recent support of work on CWD, both at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota.
If we are not able to do more to limit the spread of CWD among deer and elk in North America, the impact this will have on our essential need for deer hunting as a critical wildlife management tool could be significant.
I also fear the possibility that one day the CWD prion infection in these animals might be transmitted to humans through eating infected venison.
It’s essential that we stay focused when addressing CWD. Dr. Bastian’s work is an irrelevant distraction.
For factual, in-depth information on CWD, the center that I direct at the University of Minnesota has created a CWD Resource Center (www.cidrap.umn.edu/cwd) that I encourage Rep. Green and all interested parties to explore.