Evaluating a crowdfunding campaign to test an oral anthrax vaccine for wildlife

by Cienna3 min read12th Oct 20203 comments


Wild Animal Welfare

[First time posting here, please forgive me if I commit any faux pas.]

I’d really appreciate your advice on how I’m thinking about this. I recently found this Experiment.com raise: Validation of a novel oral anthrax vaccine for native and exotic wildlife in Texas, one of the entries for Experiment.com’s current Wildlife Health and Disease Challenge Grant cycle. I am surprised this project hasn’t gotten more engagement and support: at the time of writing, AFAICT all of the backers who pledged more than me haven’t backed any other projects: they’re friends and family, or previously convinced offsite. Of the three who pledged less, one is the token Experiment.com staff donation, one is a non-selective regular who backs many projects, and only one is selective like me. So I’m one of only two people this project page has convinced! I’m feeling like I must have gone wrong in my reasoning somewhere. What am I missing? Why hasn’t this raise convinced more people?

Is it a problem with the raise?

Did they leave out important information? Yes, they didn’t explicitly state that it is in ranchers’ economic interest to provide an anthrax vaccine to wildlife on their property: preventing outbreaks in wildlife will reduce the chance of livestock getting infected, because they’re grazing from the same land. I think I’d have backed the project a week sooner if I hadn’t had to figure that part out for myself. I also think I’d have pledged more initially if the lives and money saved numbers from the video were included in the text, because I didn’t watch the video until later. And I had to do some supplemental reading before I felt like I understood.

Were backers turned off by the budget? I do usually skip projects that ask for travel expenses, maybe others do too. The animal per diem could have been explained better.

Is it the size of the raise, in competition with a flurry of other raises? $6,000 is a bit on the large side for an Experiment.com project, and there were a lot of other good entries this grant cycle. Maybe the backer community had already allocated most of their funds to other projects.

Is it a problem with the leverage?

- Experiment.com 8% platform fee + 3% payment processing fees (not ideal, but typical)
- This raise is not tax-deductible. (not ideal, but typical)
- Not make-or-break: this raise is supplemental to CDC funding, amount not specified.
+ But they do have CDC funding, so this helps money already committed go further.
+ Early-career scientists: may continue doing work like this if they receive community support.
+ Annual vaccination is a small, predictable expense which prevents a large, sudden loss for ranchers.
+ This seems an opportunity to harness human self-interest to prevent animal suffering and death. It's nice having an answer to 'who will pay for this?'
+ If it leads to the development of an oral vaccine for livestock, the potential savings and improved financial predictability look good.
Overall, despite the fees and the degree of separation, I still consider the leverage of this project high.

Is it a problem with the story?

Anthrax outbreaks are a “solved on paper” problem. The boxes are checked, and human deaths from anthrax are now rare.

- An animal vaccine for anthrax exists. Every year, someone has to approach each large animal and stick it with a needle. This is easier said than done.

- The vaccine is affordable. In dollars, yes. But ranchers in places considered at low risk of anthrax outbreaks sometimes take the risk of not vaccinating their livestock - even though they could afford to - because of the labor and time and physical risk involved in injecting each animal. It would be safer and easier to administer an oral vaccine in feed or bait. Lower effort, wider adoption.

- Anthrax infection is treatable with antibiotics. Antibiotics work best if given as soon as possible. Animals die within hours or days of showing anthrax symptoms. How does one find an infected animal on the range or in the wild quickly enough to treat it with antibiotics?

- Best practices exist for reducing exposure to and creation of anthrax endospores.
1. The hassle and costs of proper incineration, deep burial, disinfection, reporting, etc. fall to the rancher, who has just taken an economic loss. Since outbreaks are known to sometimes go unreported, I think it’s a reasonable assumption that the other best practices are not being consistently followed either. If the overall cost of addressing anthrax is reduced, hopefully those savings can be redirected.
2. The endospores can lie dormant for decades in the soil or permafrost. Even with perfect implementation of best practices going forward, there will still be outbreaks from the already extant reserves. This vaccination defense will need be maintained indefinitely, so it needs to be cheap and easy.

Is it a problem with the goal?

Would the reduction or elimination of endemic anthrax be bad?

At first, I optimistically assumed anthrax had some benign purpose as soil bacteria, and the infections were like a tragic locust form or something when they got out of place, but I was totally wrong about that. Anthrax is an obligate pathogen, and when it’s in the soil, it’s in a durable endospore (suspended animation) form, not a contributing member of the soil community. Soil-borne, but not a soil bacteria.

Does anthrax provide an ecological benefit by providing carcasses for the food chain? Well, this service is also performed by predators and other pathogens. Even if I give it the benefit of the doubt and say naturally occurring mass die-offs are beneficial, die-offs from other natural causes seem preferable, since anthrax can infect and kill other species which consume the infected carcasses. I usually agree with the argument of resilience through diversity, but my guess is that anthrax is a net negative for resilience through diversity because it can kill a variety of species quickly.

What if this selection pressure is useful? Maybe. Its ability to infect multiple species and kill a significant percentage of infected animals makes it a pressure, but I don’t know the mechanism of action, so I don’t know what attributes anthrax might be selecting for, or specific weaknesses it might be selecting against.

Please challenge me on this, I want to improve at this kind of thinking. So if I’m wrong or I’m missing something important, please let me know! Thank you in advance.