Bovine tuberculosis (Tb), due to infection with virulent Mycobacterium bovis, represents a threat to New Zealand agriculture due to vectorial transmission from wildlife reservoir species, principally the introduced Australian brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). An oral-delivery wildlife vaccine has been developed to immunize possums against Tb, based on formulation of the human Tb vaccine (M. bovis BCG) in edible lipid matrices. Here BCG bacilli were shown to be stable in lipid matrix formulation for over 8 mo in freezer storage, for 7 wk under room temperature conditions, and for 3–5 wk under field conditions in a forest/pasture margin habitat (when maintained in weatherproof bait-delivery sachets). Samples of the lipid matrix were flavored and offered to captive possums in a bait-preference study: a combination of 10% chocolate powder with anise oil was identified as the most effective attractant/palatability combination. In a replicated field study, 85–100% of wild possums were shown to access chocolate-flavored lipid pellets, when baits were applied to areas holding approximately 600–800 possums/km2. Finally, in a controlled vaccination/challenge study, chocolate-flavored lipid vaccine samples containing 108 BCG bacilli were fed to captive possums, which were subsequently challenged via aerosol exposure to virulent M. bovis: vaccine immunogenicity was confirmed, and protection was identified by significantly reduced postchallenge weight loss in vaccinated animals compared to nonvaccinated controls. These studies indicate that, appropriately flavored, lipid delivery matrices may form effective bait vaccines for the control of Tb in wildlife.
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