Over this past year, support has been gaining to have strains of Brucella, the bacteria that causes Brucellosis, removed from the select agents and toxins list. Strains currently on the list include Brucella suis, Brucella melitensis, and the one most important to Montanans, Brucella abortus. Removing the strains from the list would allow research on the bacteria to be done in open-air facilities.
Started after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the select agents and toxins list is comprised of 67 viruses, bacteria and toxins that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) thought could potentially be used for bio-terrorism.
The HHS and USDA are charged with regulating the list, and because the things listed are considered highly contagious and can be spread through the air, research on any of them can only be done in a closed-air, biosecurity level 3 or 4 lab. For a bacteria like Brucella, which is commonly carried by larger animals and cervids, limiting research to closed-air facilities has not been conducive simply due to a logistical lack of space.
A bacteria like Brucella may be thought of as an unconventional choice for the select agents list, given that the advent of vaccines and proper management has essentially eradicated Brucellosis in U.S. domestic livestock, and as such, zoonotic transmission has been very rare. Nevertheless, history dictates its placement. In 1954, Brucella suis was the first biological weapon ever explored by the United States, and other countries have been suspected of studying its effects as a biological weapon, as well, but to date it has never been used.
Despite being controlled in domestic livestock, Brucellosis is still endemic in some wildlife, which is why research is still very vital. For producers in Montana that are required to vaccinate against Brucellosis because of proximity to an endemic wildlife population, Brucella’s removal from the list would also help with vaccine research and advancement.
Invented in 1996, vaccine strain RB51 is the only option available to producers today. To an industry that is successful largely do to consistent technological advancements, being forced to use a 24-year-old vaccine is a bit frustrating, pointed out Dr. Eric Liska, Brucellosis Program Veterinarian for the state of Montana.
“Since Brucella is on the select agents list, it really jams things up, especially with culture, and that includes even growing the bacteria to test vaccines,” he said.
Since it only effects a small segment of agriculturalists, Brucellosis is an illness that over time has been shuffled to the back of minds, but Liska argues that now is a perfect time to remove Brucella from the select agents list so researchers can have the tools and knowledge they need to mitigate the diseases’ further transmission in wildlife populations.
“If we don’t do something to stop the spread of this disease, we could have it running around in 14 different states, wherever there is elk,” Liska stated.
Additionally, Liska notes, it is more than just U.S. animal agriculture that could greatly benefit from Brucella being removed from the list. Worldwide, Brucellosis is one of the most widespread zoonotic diseases. As a leader in medical and agricultural research, the U.S. would have the potential to help advance understanding and management of the bacteria and the disease it causes.
“We just need the research. We need better vaccines, improved diagnostics and improved surveillance techniques,” he said.
Most recently, the USDA and the Federal Select Agents Program have mentioned they may come out with a memo, allowing some Brucella research to be done outdoors in certain areas where Brucellosis is already endemic in wildlife populations. This would be done without formally removing Brucella from the select agents list. For many years, such research was already being conducted on bison and elk around Yellowstone National Park, but the Department of Homeland Security shut that all down in 2017. Opening the research back up with a memo is a huge step in the right direction, but it isn’t a sustainable solution.
“I don’t think we can do any real quality or quantity type research without Brucella being removed from the select agents list,” he said.
Although the argument is strong to remove Brucella from the select agents list, the wheels of government work slow. Following an open comment period, which happened in the spring of 2020, the recommendation has now progressed to the rule writing stage. Once a rule is written, it will again be open for public comment.
“They expect that rule will come out in the summer or fall of 2021 for public comment,” Liska added.
Looking ahead, Liska says the response from producers during the initial comment period was greatly appreciated, and without a doubt, the Montana Department of Livestock will once again request producers send in written words of support for the rule when the time comes. He encourages producers to be on the lookout for that to happen.