By Jayden Malseed
When most people picture a suit, they probably think of a smartly dressed person in a business suit, but when Shawn Todd ‘suits up’ for work he wears a suit that, while made in France, isn’t exactly at the high end of fashion.
Shawn (A.K.A. Strawnie) is a research technician at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria, and since 2007 he’s been studying bats and the deadly viruses they carry.
AAHL provides a unique resource for Australia and its capacity to work with deadly disease agents at the highest level of containment, physical containment level four (PC4), is arguably the best in the world.
To stay safe when working with viruses such as SARS, Hendra and Ebola, Shawn and his colleagues spend much of their day wearing an encapsulated suit in AAHL’s high containment facility.
“The suits are air tight, have their own air supply and provide a high level protection between us and any aerosol exposure to pathogens or toxic chemicals,” Shawn said.
The number of hours that scientists work in the suit at any one time can vary.
“I work in a suit most days and it can include a couple of visits for a few hours at a time,” Shawn said.
“However, any longer than four hours and you start to get hungry, and need to worry about things like toilet stops, as it can take a while to go through the exiting procedure. It’s best to plan ahead and go before you enter the suit room.”
And even though they’re working within a completely air tight suit, they’re not cut off from the outside world. Communication headsets allow the team to talk not only with each other, but someone across the other side of the world, although privacy is at a premium – the headsets are linked together, so everyone can listen in!
Another pitfall of wearing a suit is that there’s no way to clean the inside while you are in them, say if they get contaminated with a wayward sneeze, which Shawn laments “has happened many times – it’s not great!”
The suits take about a minute, give or take, to get in and out, and when the day’s work is done you need to ‘shower out’ for around eight minutes in a chemical shower (with the suits on) followed by three minutes in a personal shower (with the suits off).
The suit room isn’t the only place within AAHL’s high containment area where staff may need to take showers as part of maintaining the facility’s biocontainment.
According to Shawn the record for the most number of showers taken in a 24 hour period is 23, although that was some years ago.
“I haven’t got anywhere near that, my highest is five” Shawn said.
The suits cost roughly $3,500 and last between 80 and 120 uses, or roughly six months.
Although they may be a hassle to get in and out of, these suits are a necessity for Shawn and his colleagues and enable them to undertake groundbreaking research safely on biosecurity issues affecting Australia.
You can see more of Shawn and his colleagues working in the suits in Channel Ten’s documentary The Hunt For Hendra (video).
Australian scientists have discovered a new virus in bats that could help shed light on how Hendra and Nipah viruses cause disease and death in animals and humans.
The new virus – named ‘Cedar’ after the Queensland location where it was discovered – is a close relative of the deadly Hendra and Nipah viruses.
However, CSIRO’s initial studies have discovered one surprising key difference – the Cedar virus does not cause illness in several animal species normally susceptible to Hendra and Nipah.
This tantalising difference may help scientists understand how to better manage and control its deadly cousins. The findings have been announced today in the journal, PLoS Pathogens, publishedby the Public Library of Science.
Mr Gary Crameri, research scientist with the bat virus team at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria, said the new discovery had significant potential implications for protecting animals and humans from the Hendra and Nipah viruses.
“The significance of discovering a new henipavirus that doesn’t cause disease is that it may help us narrow down what it is about the genetic makeup of viruses like Hendra and Nipah that does cause disease and death,” Mr Crameri said.
“The more that we can learn about bat-borne viruses, the better chance we have of developing anti-virals and vaccines to help protect human health, Australia’s livestock industry and our export trade from the threat of current and emerging animal diseases.
“Over 70 per cent of people and animals infected with Hendra and Nipah viruses die. This ranks henipaviruses amongst the deadliest viruses in existence, yet little is known about just how such viruses actually cause disease or death.”
It is still too early to rule out the possibility that Cedar virus may cause illness and death in horses or other animals.
The discovery was a result of a close partnership with Biosecurity Queensland which played an important role by collecting and screening samples from bat colonies across Queensland.
“Field work with bats is an essential part of research into identifying new viruses,” Dr Hume Field of Biosecurity Queensland said. “Bats are being implicated as the natural host of a growing number of viruses in Australia and overseas, yet they appear to tolerate infection themselves making bat research increasingly important.”
Bats have been identified as playing a role in the spread of viruses including Ebola, Marburg, SARS and Melaka yet they are an essential part of our diverse ecosystem through their role as pollinators, seed dispersers and insect regulators.
The discovery is part of ongoing research by CSIRO to target diseases that threaten our animals, people and the environment and is part of CSIRO’s wider biosecurity effort. It follows CSIRO’s development towards a horse vaccine against Hendra virus.
Pamela Tyers, CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory
Mb: 0488 995 023 E: Pamela.Tyers@csiro.au