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

[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.