Ebola outbreak causes global concern

Ebola virus

An electron microscope image of Ebola virus

The World Health Organization has confirmed the current outbreak of Ebola virus in Africa is the largest recorded outbreak killing 672 of the 1201 confirmed cases since February this year.

So it’s no surprise that there’s increasing global concern about the spread of this virus – the situation is undeniably scary. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Ebola virus?

Ebola virus, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a highly infectious illness with a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent. The virus is feared for its rapid and aggressive nature. Symptoms initially include a sudden fever as well as joint and muscle aches and then typically progress to vomiting, diarrhoea and, in some cases, internal and external bleeding. Contrary to Hollywood’s depictions, many people do not suffer massive and dramatic blood loss. They instead die from the shutdown of vital organs like the liver and kidneys.

Prior to this current situation, the largest outbreak of Ebola virus involved 425 people in Uganda, in 2000.

Ebola virus is a zoonotic disease – one that passes from animals to people. As with the respiratory diseases SARS and Hendra virus, bats have been identified as the natural host.  There is good evidence to suggest other mammals like gorillas, chimpanzees and antelopes are most likely the transmission host to people but the way the infection passes to them from the fruit bats is still not clear.

Why is it called Ebola?

The virus was first discovered in 1976, with two simultaneous outbreaks of the disease – one near the Ebola River in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the other in Nzara, Sudan. Since then more than 1600 deaths have been recorded.

How does the virus spread?

The virus is transmitted from wild animals to people. It can then spread through contact with bodily fluids from someone who is infected, or from exposure to objects like contaminated needles. People most at risk include health workers and family members or others who are in contact with the infected people.

Are there any treatments available?

There is no vaccine or known cure for Ebola virus infection. As with many emerging infectious diseases, treatment is limited to pain management and supportive therapies to counter symptoms like dehydration and lack of oxygen. Public awareness and infection control measures are vital to controlling the spread of disease.

What is CSIRO doing?

We have been researching the Reston ebolavirus strain, which is endemic in parts of Asia, for several years at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) as part of our mandate to study new and emerging infectious diseases to ensure we’re prepared should they ever reach Australia.

In 2013, following approval from the Australian government, we imported several Ebola virus isolates including the Zaire ebolavirus strain from Africa for research purposes.  We’re investigating the pathogenicity, or disease causing ability, of these viruses, to understand why the African strains have a high fatality rate in people, compared to the Asian strain, which does not cause human disease.

There are strict international protocols, government approvals and security measures in place to ensure such viruses are transported and imported safely.  At AAHL, all work with Ebola viruses is at the highest level of biocontainment, deep within the facility’s solid walls. Our specialist staff must work on the virus wearing fully encapsulated suits with their own external air supply.

Biosecurity level 4 spacesuit and scientist

CSIRO scientist Glenn Marsh working at the highest level of biosecurity

Although most of our research is in cell and tissue culture, in the coming weeks our scientists plan to work with ferrets, which have shown human-like responses to infection with other high-risk pathogens, to understand what makes the Ebola virus pathogenic. We believe that understanding the differences in virulence between the two closely related strains of Ebola may hold the key to developing an effective vaccine to prevent this deadly disease, or therapeutics to treat it.

Why is CSIRO involved in the global response to fight this deadly disease?

AAHL has highly specialised capabilities for working with zoonotic diseases. Scientists at AAHL first identified and characterised the deadly Hendra virus, which, like Ebola viruses, is classified as a ‘biosafety level four (BSL4) pathogen’- the most dangerous of viruses, without a known cure or vaccine. The team has since been integral in the development of the Equivac HeV vaccine, now being administered to protect horses and people in Australia.

Located in Geelong, AAHL is one of a handful of high-containment laboratories in the world capable of working on BSL4 pathogens. The facility was built to ensure the containment of the most infectious agents known. It is designed and equipped to enable the safe handling of disease agents such as Ebola virus, at the necessary high containment level.

For more information about the Ebola virus, see the World Health Organization fact sheet.


Australia’s biodiversity, how is it tracking?

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 3: Status and Trends

If we want to look after the species that call Australia home we first need to know what’s actually out there and, secondly, how is what’s out there changing over time. But only about a quarter of our native species have actually been formally identified.

Like many other countries, Australia lacks good scientific data sets that can tell us about the status and trend of our biodiversity. We do know that our biodiversity has been modified by land clearing, destruction of habitats, invasive pest species, burning, harvesting species from the land and sea, and climate change. But because we weren’t there collecting data when the change processes began many decades ago, it’s hard to provide an accurate assessment of the change that has occurred.

The measures that we do have, like numbers of extinct and endangered species, tell us that our biodiversity is in decline. And current monitoring efforts reveal that the pressures on our biodiversity are increasing.

In the third video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr David Yeates talks about new monitoring programs that are helping us address the biodiversity knowledge gaps so that we’re able to better manage our native fauna and flora into the future:

To find out more about the status and trend of Australia’s biodiversity, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

Last week’s video looked at how Australia’s biodiversity came to be so unique. You can review it and the other videos in the series on our YouTube channel.


Got a question? Give us a holler.

By Jennifer Phillips

What does a dung beetle look like? Is this material fire-resistant? What research are you conducting in the field of renewable energy?

These are just some of the types of questions the friendly folk in our Client Relations contact centre regularly help find answers to. With 30,000 enquiries coming their way every year, they know A LOT about our science (and lots of other weird and wonderful things for that matter).

To understand first hand what it’s like to work on the end of our hotline, this week our Chief Executive Megan Clark jumped in to field some of your burning questions.

L-R Our Client Relations Manager Claire Manson showing our Chief Executive Megan Clark the ropes

L-R Our Contact Centre Manager Claire Manson showing our Chief Executive Megan Clark the ropes

As she quickly learnt, people contact us about all sorts of things. We’ve been at the forefront of Australian science since 1926. So when people want to go straight to the source, they tend to turn to us. Here are just some of the hot topics we regularly respond to:

Keeping you healthy
We love that Australians want to be healthier. This was made abundantly clear when our Total Wellbeing Diet book was first published. It sold a million copies and almost sent our phone system into meltdown. The release of BARLEYmax caused a similar reaction, with people calling in straight from their local supermarket aisle wanting to get their hands on the supergrain.

Testing, testing
We’re used to being contacted about our testing services, but every now and then we field a request that catches us off guard.  Like the time a caller asked if we could test the nature of an unidentified ‘floatie’ in her beverage. While this (unfortunately) fell outside our remit, we do offer many other testing services for Australian companies – from assessing the bushfire risk of a dwelling, to measuring the slip-factor at the local pool.

I’ve got an invention
We often hear from entrepreneurial members of the public who fancy themselves as the next Thomas Edison. We’ve been approached about animal-human transmogrification, invisibility shrouds and time-travelling devices, to name a few. While we weren’t able to help on these occasions our Small and Medium Enterprise Engagement Centre can assist businesses that want to use science to gain competitive advantage, improve profitability and help their business grow.

When I grow up…
Out of all the enquiries we receive, our most heart-warming often come in the form of letters from the next generation of budding scientists. Our most famous correspondent was seven-year-old Sophie, who recently wrote to us politely asking if we could make her a dragon. Our generous 3D printing experts kindly obliged. No biggie.


This is just a small insight into how we help Australians connect with our science in all kinds of wonderful and powerful ways. Contact us via CSIRO’s website or:


Cattle industry swings behind safety gate

Cattle yards play a huge part in our local farming industry. In fact, with over 28 million head of cattle grazing on our big brown land, there are more cows in Australia than people.

Not only are our cows big in numbers, they are also big in size. Weighing in at up to 450kg, the risk of our bovine friends causing serious injury, and even death, is very real – to the point where cattle handling is one of the most hazardous jobs in the livestock industry.

That’s why this National Farm Safety Week, we’re revisiting a cattle gate which was purpose built to keep our farmers safe.

Designed by NSW farmer Edward Evans, SaferGate swings away from the operator when an animal charges it. This time two years ago we put the gate through rigorous testing. How did we do this? We thought we’d use our very own ‘crash test cow’. See how it went down:

Since our bovine testing rook place in 2012, SaferGate has hit the market and been installed in over 100 cattle fences around the country.

Australian Agricultural Co’s chief operating officer Troy Setter, said his company had installed some SaferGate units last year, which had already prevented potential injury to one of his livestock staff when a beast struck the gate she was attempting to close.

“If it was a normal gate, she would have been hit and possibly seriously injured, however the SaferGate simply folded away,” Mr Setter said. “Stopping just one injury makes the investment worthwhile,” he said.

Read more about the development of SaferGate or get involved in National Farm Safety Week.


Harnessing the power of waves

Ocean waves are one of the most powerful natural forces on our planet. Dense with energy, they pack a lot of punch and travel enormous distances across our oceans.  What’s more, they’re very reliable – it is very easy to predict which way a wave will move.

It’s for these reasons that waves are being touted as the next big thing in renewable energy.

In fact, our scientists have conducted modelling that shows that waves have the potential to play a large part in Australia’s future energy mix. They could supply 10 per cent of our energy by 2050 – enough to power a city the size of Melbourne.

Ocean wave

While wave energy is an exciting possibility, the way we harness this power is still an emerging technology. More research needs to be done to understand exactly how ocean wave extraction will work and the potential impact it could have on marine environments.

The good news is that this will now be possible thanks to a $1.3 million grant announced by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).  This funding will allow us to develop an online ‘wave energy atlas’ – an important step towards realising wave energy projects off Australian shores.

The atlas will pull together data from weather mapping, satellites, measuring stations and other sources to allow users to assess the feasibility of wave power stations in different locations. It will also display geographic information on marine usage, including stretches of oceans that are heritage listed, marine parks and shipping lanes.

With almost 80 per cent of Australia’s population living on the coast, wave energy presents a huge possibility for our country. This new resource will allow us to make informed decisions about how to best take advantage of this powerful force.

The project will be carried out in stages over the next three years and is expected to be completed in 2017. Read more about it on the ARENA website


Getting science from CSIRO isn’t just about start-ups

A crop of BarleyMax™ in the field

BarleyMax™ crop in the field Credit: Carl Davies

By Jan Bingley, general manager of business development and commercial

I learned a long time ago that “commercialisation” is a greatly misunderstood activity. Most often, it is interpreted narrowly as the process of developing IP, protecting it in the form of patents and licensing them for royalties or equity in start-ups.

It’s not surprising that commercialisation is seen this way. Many universities and publicly funded research agencies continue to measure performance by counting the number of royalty-bearing licences, number of start-ups formed and the revenue received each year from these transactions. Indeed we do it here in Australia via the National Survey of Research Commercialisation published by the federal government. The largest association for university commercialisation – the Association of University Technology Managers – measures this annually via its large commercialisation survey covering hundreds of North American Universities.

However, the comparison between CSIRO’s annual revenue and the revenue received from commercialisation transactions published at the link above, is based on misunderstandings and is misleading. About 34 per cent of CSIRO’s annual revenue, just over $400 million, is provided by our industry partners and other clients to fund specific collaborative R&D projects. The balance is provided by the federal government. CSIRO has hundreds of collaborations every year with industry – both big and small – and every one of them is all about commercialisation. Alongside our industry partners, we identify the problems that need solving, work together to solve them, and the resulting IP – in the form of know-how as well as protectable IP – rests with the industry partner. Those partners may go on to develop it further, often involving many more years and millions of dollars to reap the commercial benefits.

CSIRO sometimes secures a future financial benefit as a reward for collaborating with an industry partner, but in revenue terms this will be tiny. However, in impact, having an industry partner go on to become bigger, better and stronger is what CSIRO strives to achieve. This is why we continue to enjoy considerable government funding. We are here to assist industry for the benefit of Australia and Australians. Industry in all its forms – not just start-ups.

It is rare that CSIRO develops IP in its own right: most of our IP has been developed in collaboration with our partners and is therefore encumbered through that collaborative activity. This means that CSIRO’s patent portfolio is not littered with “Rembrandts in the attic” that some think we must be hiding. Occasionally, we see an opportunity to generate impact through licensing to start-ups and we are immensely proud of the success of these start-ups and the impact they are generating for Australia .

OUR PATENTS ARE OFTEN SCIENCE-BASED

There are numerous examples of start-ups that have benefited from licensing IP from CSIRO – BuildingIQ, Benitec, Radiata, Starpharma, Windlab, BarleyMax, Advantage Wheats, GeoSLAM, and many others. CSIRO can improve on its licensing regime to ensure we are as efficient as possible when transacting with start-ups. We are learning from this feedback and we’ve taken steps to address this, including coming up with standard licence terms. However, it is wrong to think CSIRO’s patent portfolio is the answer to generating more start-ups in Australia. Our patents are often very science-based, far away from productisation and require significant amounts of money and time before any prospect of commercial returns are possible. In short, our patents are rarely suited to a start-up model.

I’ve been approached over the years by many entrepreneurs looking for an opportunity to commercialise our IP – only very occasionally has this engagement resulted in spotting something in the portfolio suited to a start-up model. On average, we license our technology to two or three start-ups each year (a high rate in comparison to most publicly funded research agencies). CSIRO’s mission is to deliver innovative solutions for Australia’s industry, society and environment through great science – we’re about doing Science for Impact. Getting our science out of CSIRO and into the hands of businesses – big and small – that have the resources to go on and commercialise (use) the science for positive impact for their business and therefore generate positive outcomes for Australia and Australians.

We also partner extensively with established Australian SME’s so they can access CSIRO’s extensive know-how and intellectual horse-power to better their businesses – in some cases we even provide funds to those SMEs so they can access innovation to ultimately become bigger, more competitive companies. CSIRO’s SME Engagement Centre assists small to medium Australian enterprises by identifying and connecting companies to technical expertise and resources, defining technical issues, developing research projects for industry and providing guidance around access to funding for research.

If CSIRO receives small amounts of revenue in recognition of our involvement along the way, that’s great as we reinvest that into new science. But it is by no means a measure of the significant impact we seek to generate from taxpayer funds in research. The real impact of commercialisation is not the narrow discussion about royalty earnings, it’s about benefits to the economy and society. One of our best known inventions is our WLAN patent that has earned $425 million in licensing revenue, but in evaluating the success of this invention we also have to take into account the value created by the fact that our wireless technology enables over seven billion devices around the world.

Think about how much that CSIRO invention is the basis of today’s connectivity – how we each use it, every day. Now that’s impact.

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review 22 July 2014


How did Australia’s plants and animals get to be so unique?

Australia’s Biodiversity series – Part 2: Major Features

Australia is known for its weird and wonderful critters and plant life – the kangaroo, platypus, Banksias, wattles, emu… the list could go on and on. But how did these icons come to evolve in the ways that they did? Science can help us piece together the story.

In the millions of years since Australia separated from Antarctica and drifted north, our continent’s biodiversity has evolved mostly in isolation, while periodically taking on new ‘passengers’ from Asia.

In the second video of our Australia’s Biodiversity series, Dr Leo Joseph talks about the factors that have shaped the life we find on our continent, and how new technology is revealing more than ever:

To find out more about the major features of Australia’s biodiversity, you might like to read the corresponding chapter of CSIRO’s Biodiversity Book.

You can also review the other videos in the series.


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