Vaccines

Prevent Human Epidemics by Infecting Wild Animals With Self-Disseminating Vaccines

The upsides and the possible downsides of transmissible vaccines .

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Researchers estimate that around 60 percent of known infectious diseases and up to 75 percent of new or emerging infectious diseases jumped from animals into humans. This includes the COVID-19 coronavirus which likely spread from bats to people either naturally or possibly through a lab leak.

Wouldn't it be great if wild animals could be inoculated against the various diseases they host so that those microbes never get a chance to spread to humans? To that end, two University of Idaho biologists, Scott Nuismer and James Bull, outlined in a 2020 Nature Ecology & Evolution article how self-disseminating vaccines could be developed to suppress animal diseases. The researchers distinguished between transferable and transmissible vaccines. A transferable vaccine might consist of a paste applied to the fur of a bat which then transfers the vaccine to all of the bats that groom it. Transferable vaccines are much like the rabies vaccines that are now spread in the wild through baits.

A transmissible vaccine is one in which, say, an innocuous virus prevalent in the host species is genetically modified by inserting immunogenic genes from the target pathogens such as SARS, Ebola, or Lassa fever viruses. To guard against possible deleterious evolutionary changes, the transmissible vaccine's viral vector could be made self-limiting such that over time the inserted immunogenic genes disappear so the subsequent generations eventually revert to the virus' original innocuous form. The vaccines would be tested on captive populations of relevant animals, ideally at facilities on isolated islands, for safety and efficiency of spread.

As the researchers conclude, "Although the financial investment required to develop and test the first generation of transmissible vaccines is likely to be substantial, it is inconsequential when compared to the cost of viral spillover—more than US$3.6 billion for the response to the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014–2016, US$40 billion for the SARS outbreak of 2003, and US$8 billion per year for canine rabies alone." These amounts seem antiquated in the light of the trillions in economic damage wreaked by the current pandemic.

In a February 2021 article in the same journal, a group led by Andrew Hebbeler, the global biological policy researcher at Nuclear Threat Initiative, countered that "the substantial safety and security risks around the advancement of transmissible vaccines outweigh potential benefits." Hebbeler and his colleagues worry specifically that unproven vaccine viruses could escape from isolated testing facilities much like the rabbit haemmorhagic fever virus did in 1995 in Australia. In addition, the modified vaccine viruses could mutate so that their self-limiting features fail, allowing them to spread further than their developers intended.

The researchers' bigger concerns, however, are the biosecurity implications of self-disseminating vaccines. "Research on candidate transmissible vectors would uniquely focus on engineering and testing both transmissibility and genomic stability, traits which might be directly translated to viruses capable of infecting humans," they warned. "Viral vectors optimized for these properties could be directly repurposed to deliberately cause harm."

Already widespread gain of function research on various disease microbes means that that particular biosecurity horse is already well out of the biotech barn. For instance, the National Institutes of Health lifted its ban on gain of function research back in 2017. Even Hebbeler and his colleagues acknowledged that "cost-effective vaccination of reservoir populations would be a great asset" that could "reduce regular spillover of pathogens such as rabies and Lassa virus." As I have previously argued, the best bio-defense is bio-offense. That's especially the case against disease viruses harbored by wild species that could one day make the jump to humans and cause another pandemic.

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  1. Wouldn’t it be great if wild animals could be inoculated against the various diseases they host so that those microbes never get a chance to spread to humans?

    First, they’ll have to log on to the internet to schedule an appointment…

    1. They are going to have a damned hard time showing photo ID and a current insurance card.

      1. I can’t imagine animals waiting in lines.

    2. The viruses don’t transmit from bats directly to humans – they first pass to animals that people EAT, whether they are sold at wet markets (SARS-COV2), hunted in the African bush (Ebola), or raised on factory farms (variants of swine and bird flu). The real answer is to stop eating animals – this would solve a lot of other world problems as well.

      1. So I should skip my favorite Ratsteak & Kidney Pie?

      2. Almost all can directly spread, but the thing is that bats don’t normally come into contact with people directly. Rabies is the exception, as it causes bats to act, well, rabid.

      3. The viruses don’t transmit from bats directly to humans – they first pass to animals that people EAT, whether they are sold at wet markets (SARS-COV2), hunted in the African bush (Ebola), or raised on factory farms (variants of swine and bird flu). The real answer is to stop eating animals – this would solve a lot of other world problems as well.

        This is bullshit.

        First, ebola doesn’t have to be eaten or contracted from hunted animals and the idea that that’s how it’s contracted is contrary to epidemiological evidence. Patient/ground zero is never game hunters or wildlife preserve wardens.

        Second, one of the most definitive notions of a factory farm is the fundamental processes that have been put in place that prevent the transmission that hinders the growth of the stock. People don’t live/sleep around their animals like they do/did on subsistent or homestead farms. Animals live and sleep on concrete surfaces and in enclosures rather than wallowing in their own filth and tolerating predators and parasites out in the wild. Sick/infectious animals are liquidated rather than quarantined and rehabbed.

        It’s hard to tell if you were stupid and then decided to stop eating meat or if you stopped eating meat and it made you more stupid. Doesn’t really make a difference.

      4. Impossible. Bacon is the world’s perfect food, we can’t stop eating it.

    3. What is this new “mute user” thing? Please don’t tell me that Reason is becoming part of Cancel Culture.

  2. The vaccines would be tested on captive populations of relevant animals, ideally at facilities on isolated islands, for safety and efficiency of spread.

    This is how you end up with smoke monsters.

  3. Bats are disgusting creatures. There are millions of them in single caverns, even here in the United States, and after being exposed to whatever carrion they feed on, they huddle back together by the millions in those cold, damp, and dark caves–anything one of them catches, they all catch.

    One of the amazing things about authoritarians is the way they become so obsessed with some problems, that seem trivial by comparison, and completely ignore others that seem the bigger threat. China has a mass surveillance system tied into a social credit system, which is set up to reward people who are polite and punish people for not showing up for dinner reservations. They keep people’s kids out of universities for such things and deny them air travel, while giving others preferential treatment in hospitals.

    But they let people sell bats in wet markets–even after recent outbreaks of SARS and MERS, both of which, I understand, are traced back to bats?! I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to use bats for their Chinese traditional medicinal properties, necessarily, but if you’ve already got a surveillance state and the authoritarian will to punish people for being rude, like they do in China, why not go after something that’s a demonstrated threat, like wet markets for bats, instead?

    1. Imagine, in the wake of trillion-dollar government shutdowns and claims that a laboratory-engineered virus killed millions of people, the gall of the person that says we need to do more.

      Thanos: *snaps finger*
      Ron Bailey: Really he should do that a few more times, just to be safe.

    2. I saw this episode of The Orville.

    3. “but if you’ve already got a surveillance state and the authoritarian will to punish people for being rude, like they do in China, why not go after something that’s a demonstrated threat, like wet markets for bats, instead?”

      Because they are corrupt and not as all powerful as you give them credit for.

  4. As the researchers conclude, “Although the financial investment required to develop and test the first generation of transmissible vaccines is likely to be substantial, it is inconsequential when compared to the cost of viral spillover—more than US$3.6 billion for the response to the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014–2016, US$40 billion for the SARS outbreak of 2003, and US$8 billion per year for canine rabies alone.” These amounts seem antiquated in the light of the trillions in economic damage wreaked by the current pandemic.

    I don’t even know what to say to this. Wait, yes I do: Fuck you. Cut spending.

  5. “Wouldn’t it be great if wild animals could be inoculated against the various diseases they host so that those microbes never get a chance to spread to humans?”

    If by “great,” you mean a great start to a horror movie, sure.

    1. I disagree. Spoiler alert: Even best laid plans don’t survive contact with the enemy.

  6. the best bio-defense is bio-offense

    Anybody know how do you say that in German?

    1. Frieden in unserer Zeit

      1. Seriously, it feels like an ethical discussion with someone wearing a ‘What Would Hitler Do?’ bracelet.

  7. Ron, never watch Monsters Inside Me. Never.

    1. Searching for that now. Thanks.

  8. Are some of the columnists here parody accounts?

  9. Libertarianism for central planning!

  10. As I have previously argued, the best bio-defense is bio-offense. That’s especially the case against disease viruses harbored by wild species that could one day make the jump to humans and cause another pandemic.

    Bailey: “We must make sure that no pandemic ever happens again! Lets head them off at the pass by making more biological weapon labs!”

    I don’t know what’s more retarded, that you think the world needs more gain of function research or that you apparently still buy the BS about the virus coming from bats at a wet market. Even Dems haven’t parroted that lie for months.

    1. He seems to have zero understanding of evolution. Especially in regards to viruses.

    2. “gain of function research” = “political cover for biological weapons research”

  11. This is how zombie movies start.

  12. I’m thinking this is a little bit like asking a toddler to write the software for a self driving car.

  13. The viruses don’t transmit from bats directly to humans – they first pass to animals that people EAT, whether they are sold at wet markets (SARS-COV2), hunted in the African bush (Ebola), or raised on factory farms (variants of swine and bird flu). The real answer is to stop eating animals – this would solve a lot of other world problems as well.

  14. In every Man vs. Nature movie man is the one fleeing to safety.
    Will we never learn?
    Evolve harder people!

  15. Living things have a right to live on this earth freely. But the human becomes an incentive to the pain of others. Though animals can not talk they have a voice. We all have come to this world for a specific purpose. The earth needs all, to balance her environment. People use animal testing for cosmetics and medical tests. They have become experimental subjects in medical and cosmetic fields. It is acceptable if there are no other alternatives, in medical tests. But how can we accept it for the cosmetic field? https://petly.us/hawaii-is-the-next-state-to-ban-animal-testing-for-cosmetics/

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