UCalgary to receive funding for research into fatal disease spreading among deer, elk and moose

Stephanie Babych 3 minute read January 27, 2022

A provincial innovation agency announced Wednesday it will invest $1.25 million in research projects driven by Alberta universities to better understand and address the growing transmission of a fatal disease among deer, elk and moose.

Alberta Innovates says the need for further research on the increasing spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) is critical to preventing it from becoming a serious threat to the agriculture industry, the environment and possibly human health. The progressive and fatal nervous system disease infects the brains of wild animals but can also spread to new species, livestock or farmed elk and deer.

The funding will be split between three projects at the University of Alberta and two at the University of Calgary. Each team was selected to cover a different area of research, including two projects that will focus on developing a vaccine that could prevent transmission to caribou.

“The aggressive rate of transmission of CWD poses the risk that this disease could soon grow to levels where deer populations will significantly decline and CWD is introduced into new geographical regions, including the ranges of Alberta’s at-risk woodland caribou herds,” Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said in a news release.

“Research to better understand the disease and advance the development of an effective vaccine will support other science-based strategies used by Environment and Parks to limit the prevalence and spread of CWD in Alberta’s wildlife populations.”

CWD is a prion disease that is monitored in Canada, the United States, parts of Europe and South Korea. The prions are spread by infected animals through urine, feces and saliva, and can be infectious in the soil for years. According to Alberta Innovates, one of the primary concerns is that it spreads to other species and could infect people who consume infected meat — though there is no direct evidence that CWD has been transmitted to humans.

One project at each university will work on vaccination research, while the other three projects will focus on different aspects of the transmissibility and progression of CWD.

The positivity rate in hunted mule deer tested in Alberta is nearly 15 per cent and is increasing, according to the news release.

With additional funding coming from Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR), Alberta Environment and Parks and several other funding sources, the total research support surpasses $2 million.

Dr. David Chalack, RDAR chair, said the prion disease has debilitated the farmed cervid and hunting sectors for years, but it’s posing an even greater threat to Alberta agriculture as it spreads.

“The threat of crop contamination with CWD prions shed by cervids is real. The work of researchers is essential to understanding the disease and developing countermeasure,” said Chalack. “And I am confident in Alberta’s capacity to develop effective disease solutions based on vaccines and genomics.”

Twitter: @BabychStephanie


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