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NIH RML bull elk CWD.jpg Credit: Brent Race
Three healthy bull elk during the fall 2018 rut in central Montana.

Household bleach may inactivate CWD prions

Strategy appears feasible for decontaminating hunting and meat processing equipment.

A five-minute soak in a 40% solution of household bleach decontaminated stainless steel wires coated with chronic wasting disease (CWD) prions, according to a new study by scientists with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

According to the NIH announcement, the wires were used to model the knives and saws hunters and meat processors use when handling deer, elk and moose — all of which are susceptible to CWD.

The research was conducted at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Mont., which is a component of NIH's National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases. The findings were published in the open-access journal PLOS One.

CWD is a brain-damaging and fatal prion disease in cervids -- members of the deer family. To date, CWD has never been found in people, NIH said. However, since other prion diseases can affect people, scientists, wildlife managers and public health agencies have suggested handling CWD cervid tissues with caution.

CWD is spreading in North America, increasing the potential for human exposure. The disease has been found in cervids in 26 states and three Canadian provinces, as well as in Norway, Finland and South Korea. Not all animals infected with CWD will show signs of disease, but those that do appear weak and thin, NIH said.

Infectious prions — types of proteins found in mammals that can cause disease when misfolded — are extremely difficult to inactivate, which led the scientists to seek a practical, low-cost CWD decontamination method, NIH said. Bleach has been proved as a decontaminant against other types of prions but had never been tested against CWD.

CWD prions adhere readily to stainless steel and can contaminate knives, saws and other equipment, according to the announcement. For hunters and others who want to be cautious when handling potentially CWD-infected animals, the ability to decontaminate equipment is one approach to reducing potential exposure.

The RML researchers tested various bleach concentrations and soak times on CWD-infected brains from white-tailed and mule deer to determine the most effective combination to eliminate prion seeding. Notably, the study failed to find an effective method to decontaminate CWD-infected solid tissue. Pieces of CWD-infected brain retained prion activity even after a 30-minute soak in 100% bleach, NIH said. The investigators noted that bleach fails to penetrate tissues and should be used only as a surface decontaminant.

The scientists hope that public health and wildlife agencies will consider this study when making formal recommendations for decontamination of CWD prions.

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