The ecology of chronic wasting disease in wildlife
Prions are misfolded infectious proteins responsible for a group of fatal neurodegenerative diseases termed transmissible spongiform encephalopathy or prion diseases. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is the prion disease with the highest spillover potential, affecting at least seven Cervidae (deer) species. The zoonotic potential of CWD is inconclusive and cannot be ruled out. A risk of infection for other domestic and wildlife species is also plausible. Here, we review the current status of the knowledge with respect to CWD ecology in wildlife. Our current understanding of the geographic distribution of CWD lacks spatial and temporal detail, does not consider the biogeography of infectious diseases, and is largely biased by sampling based on hunters' cooperation and funding available for each region. Limitations of the methods used for data collection suggest that the extent and prevalence of CWD in wildlife is underestimated. If the zoonotic potential of CWD is confirmed in the short term, as suggested by recent results obtained in experimental animal models, there will be limited accurate epidemiological data to inform public health. Research gaps in CWD prion ecology include the need to identify specific biological characteristics of potential CWD reservoir species that better explain susceptibility to spillover, landscape and climate configurations that are suitable for CWD transmission, and the magnitude of sampling bias in our current understanding of CWD distribution and risk. Addressing these research gaps will help anticipate novel areas and species where CWD spillover is expected, which will inform control strategies. From an ecological perspective, control strategies could include assessing restoration of natural predators of CWD reservoirs, ultrasensitive CWD detection in biotic and abiotic reservoirs, and deer density and landscape modification to reduce CWD spread and prevalence.