The fight to contain a mysterious pathogen — one with an alarming potential to jump from deer to humans — just took a major step forward with a recent University of Minnesota announcement.
The state’s flagship academic institution is home to a research center led by infectious-disease expert Michael Osterholm. In March, U officials said they are launching a much-needed initiative to respond to the threat posed by chronic wasting disease (CWD), which is found in deer and kindred animals. Osterholm will lead the effort and his new high-profile role could be a game-changer.
CWD has now been found in deer or other animals such as elk, reindeer or moose in at least 26 states and three Canadian provinces. Health officials sometimes refer to an area near the southeastern Minnesota town of Preston as a CWD “hot zone,’’ due to the number of infected animals found there. Alarming results released in mid-February underscore concerns about the disease’s spread. A deer found in north-central Minnesota’s Crow Wing County tested positive for the disease. “This test result marks the first time in Minnesota the always-fatal neurological disease has been found in a wild deer outside of the southeastern part of the state,” according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Thanks to strong leadership by state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, the Minnesota Legislature is currently weighing pragmatic, nation-leading efforts to protect hunters and their families. CWD has not yet been found in humans, but it belongs to a class of diseases that have previously leapt across species. Among them: bovine spongiform encephalopathy, sometimes called “mad cow disease.” CWD, like mad cow disease, is caused by a little-understood and difficult-to-kill infectious agent — a type of protein known as “prions.” Health officials currently warn against eating meat from infected animals.
Coordinated federal efforts are also needed to stop the disease’s spread and better understand its risk to humans. It’s commendable that Minnesota lawmakers are pushing to fund the development of a field test for deer hunters to quickly identify infected animals, for example, but it’s disappointing that national political leaders, with access to far deeper resources, haven’t made this or other countermeasures a priority. At one point, President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget zeroed out funding for one of the world’s top prion laboratories at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, though the cuts were eventually averted.
CWD’s presence in more than two dozen states also requires more than a patchwork of varying-strength responses by regional lawmakers. A weak response in one state could put many others at risk.
Establishing the CWD Response, Research and Policy Program at the U will help put a national focus on CWD. The U is a world-class medical institution, and the program’s launch signals strongly that the disease’s risk must be taken more seriously and that federal resources are a must. Osterholm’s involvement will particularly pay dividends. Few scientists are more capable of breaking down complex topics for a general audience and persuading others to join public health campaigns. Minnesota’s congressional delegation ought to push for hearings on Capitol Hill to capitalize on his formidable communications skills.
The new U program will also serve as an education resource for doctors and veterinarians, addressing an urgent information gap.
State lawmakers should continue to push forward with CWD measures while Congress comes up to speed. Becker-Finn has a commendable slate of bills that merit support, but Minnesota can’t go it alone. The U’s new program will broaden and better coordinate the fight against this emerging health threat. This effort builds on the state’s long tradition of health care leadership and burnishes it.