How to stop an epidemic

By Linfa Wang and Nola Wilkinson

Throughout history, infectious diseases have arisen unexpectedly and swept through human populations with catastrophic effects, like the Black Death and syphilis. We still face health threats today from diseases like AIDS, SARS and Hendra  – though we don’t yet have a daily disease forecast like this one:

Most emerging infectious diseases come from wild animals which can carry the infection without life-threatening results. But when these diseases infect humans, the consequences can be fatal.

More and more health professionals are recognising that the health of humans and wild and domestic animals is linked, both subtly and inextricably. If the role of rats as disease carriers had been understood in medieval times, plague might not have spread so widely.

Up close and personal: a microscopic view of the Hendra virus in bat cells.

Up close and personal: a microscopic view of the Hendra virus in bat cells.

In recent times transmission of diseases from animals to humans has had devastating effects, such as the twentieth century pandemics caused by HIV (which came from African chimpanzees) and influenza (Spanish flu is likely to have travelled from birds to humans). Recently, our research team found that bats are a natural reservoir for lethal viruses including Hendra, Ebola and SARS.

We’re addressing these emerging threats to human health in our One Health research initiative. By looking at how viruses interact with their human and animal hosts, we’re developing tools for the diagnosis, surveillance and prevention of these diseases. Our research is focused on the development of new vaccines, anti-viral therapeutics and disease-resistant animals.

For instance, in 2012 we launched the Equivac vaccine, which protects horses from infection and thus prevents transmission of Hendra virus from horses to humans. Vaccines can block the transmission of infection, regardless of whether humans or animals are vaccinated.

Linfa Wang

Linfa Wang and his team are helping to prevent the spread of infectious disease between animals and humans.

We’re also working on potential therapeutic agents like monoclonal antibodies which are administered after infection, as well as anti-viral drugs which can either block entry of the virus to the cell and prevent the virus from replicating or prevent its maturation and release from infected cells.

These developments can help break the chain of virus transmission and limit the impact of new diseases in our closely interconnected and highly mobile world.

Learn more about our work in animal health.

Defending ag from disease

Photo of the exterior of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria

On-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, diagnostic scientists at CSIRO are ready to respond should an emergency disease outbreak occur.

They could test 10,000 samples per day in an emergency, but as standard delivery, CSIRO scientists at Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria, test more than 45,000 samples for 55 terrestrial and 40 aquatic animal diseases every year.

Luckily, Australia is relatively free of many animal and human diseases found in other parts of the world, such as foot and mouth disease (FMD) and Nipah virus.

However, new infectious diseases, such as new strains of avian influenza, pose a constant threat to the health and wellbeing of animals and humans and pose a risk to Australia’s environment, industries and trade.

According to AAHL’s director Dr Kurt Zuelke, researchers are focused on reducing the threats of exotic and emerging animal diseases and, for example, are on standby with over 650 different tests covering a diverse range of animal species. “AAHL researches diseases of national importance found in livestock, aquaculture animals and wildlife, including those that can pass from animals to people,” Dr Zuelke said. “Our scientists are a front-line defence who help protect the country’s billion dollar livestock and aquaculture industries from disease threats on a daily basis.”

They play this defence role through performing diagnoses, establishing surveillance to monitor movements and emergences and if required, responding to animal disease emergencies. Better understanding diseases to develop diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatments is also crucial and CSIRO AAHL scientists lead the world on bat and insect-borne disease research. This is important for animal and human health as bats and insects are natural reserviours of a range of viruses and cause many of the world’s infectious diseases in both animals and humans.

Malaria and dengue, for example, are harmless to mosquitoes; blue tongue virus is harmless to midges; and Hendra, Nipah, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses are harmless to bats – but all can be lethal to humans. AAHL also helps to train veterinarians in other countries to reduce the disease risks to Australia and is an official collaborating centre for capacity building in Southeast Asia. Recently, teams have visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to train local veterinarians in disease diagnosis and testing techniques in their efforts to control and eradicate diseases such as FMD, classical swine fever and avian influenza. Importantly, this international work means Australia is more prepared with better threat assessments, surveillance and management options for many foreign diseases.

This article originally appeared in our 16 May Rural Press insert (pdf).

You can see what else we’ve been up to in our Rural Press Inserts Archive.

Preventing a pathway for pathogens

Part of the Biosecurity Series

By guest blogger Professor Peter Doherty

Photo of the tail of three planes

Image: caribb/Flickr

It’s no big secret that we’re citizens of an increasingly globalized planet where ideas, information, goods and services get around very fast. One of the downsides of this brave new world is that the same is true for pests and pathogens.

The security services, customs officers and quarantine regulations/officials protect Australia from such invasions as much as possible, although given the volume of trade and human movement, stopping bad things at the borders can only be part of any effective strategy.

There’s also a need for continual environmental monitoring to make sure that nothing dangerous slips through which could compromise Australia’s agricultural industries, wildlife and natural environments.

When it comes to biodefence against invading viruses, bacteria, insects, plants, marine parasites (on the hulls of ships) and so forth, we have layers of operation that function both at the Federal and State level.

This is, of course, where the wonderful high security CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) comes into its own, providing the essential diagnostic tools and facilities for safe studies of deadly viruses in animals that are unique to the South-east Asian region.

Photo of the exterior of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria

Apart from its service to the veterinary world, AAHL has also pioneered studies of bat-borne viruses like Hendra and Nipah (active to the North-West of Australia) that can transmit to people from infected horses and pigs respectively. These are classic cases of the “One Health” view CSIRO takes that stresses the intimate interplay between animal disease and human disease. Apart from the Henipaviruses, AAHL also has the facilities that allow CSIRO researchers to study the avian influenza A viruses, that are a looming threat to both domestic poultry and people.

An artificially coloured electron micrograph of the new-SARS like virus – now known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – which has caused an ongoing outbreak of respiratory disease and has spread from the Middle East to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Tunisia.

An artificially coloured electron micrograph of the new-SARS like virus – now known as the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) – which has caused an ongoing outbreak of respiratory disease and has spread from the Middle East to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Tunisia. (click for full size image)

The new CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship pulls together research capability from across CSIRO together with a broad range of collaborating centres and groups. Sharing information is vital for such activities.  Clearly, Australia cannot afford to have “silos” and artificial barriers that in any sense compromise our biological security. Of ongoing concern are the hi-path variants of the avian influenza H5N1 viruses that continue to circulate in wild and domestic birds (and occasionally infect and kill people) in the countries to the north-west of Australia. While we’ve avoided that particular threat so far, the situation requires constant monitoring.

Another threat is the recently emerged H7N9 avian influenza virus and MERS, a novel coronavirus in the Middle East.

I’ve said nothing about plant, insect and fish pathogens, but there are many diseases of key species, such as bees, trout and salmon that we have so far managed to keep at bay.

The new CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship is a great step in the right direction, and we need to continue doing all that we possibly can to ensure the long-term health and wellbeing of all the life forms that inhabit our extraordinary and unique country.

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

About the Author

Photo of Peter Doherty

Peter Doherty trained initially as a veterinarian and shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning our immune defence against viruses. He published the non-fiction book “Sentinel Chickens: What Birds Tell Us About our Health and our World” in 2012, and his new book “Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know” will be available in Australia from October.

Follow Peter on twitter: @ProfPCDoherty

Human ‘spillover hosts’ sounds like the plot for a Sci-Fi movie

Part of the Biosecurity Series

By John Lowenthal and Andrew Bean

Zoonoses are diseases that have the ability to spread from animals to people, and they include some very well known diseases such as tuberculosis, flu and rabies, as well as some less familiar newcomers such as the Nipah and Melaka viruses.

Electron micrograph image of H7N9 Avian Influenza Virus

Mug shot of a one of the world’s new deadly viruses, A(H7N9).The four blobs in this electron micrograph are the virus.

In recent times zoonoses have accounted for more than 70 per cent of all emerging diseases, including H7N9 and H5N1 avian influenza, SARS, and MERS. What’s interesting is that a great deal of these zoonotic viruses that now pose a problem for humans appear to originate in either bats or poultry.

This highlights our need to understand not just what is happening in the human, but also what is happening in the animal.  Wild animals such as bats and migratory water birds are the natural ‘reservoir’ hosts for many zoonotic infections and little is known about how they carry these viruses without showing signs of disease.

Other animals, including horses, pigs, chickens and even people are ‘spillover’ hosts, meaning they are highly susceptible to these viruses, and infection is usually deadly.

The recent growth and geographic expansion of human populations and the advance of agriculture into wildlife habitats has meant that now, more than ever, there is a greater risk of emerging infectious diseases being transmitted to people from wild and domesticated animals.

In addition, the impact of climate change has resulted in disturbances in eco-systems and a re-distribution of disease hosts and carriers.  Increased global travel means a greater likelihood that new infectious agents will rapidly spread amongst the human population.Infographic of recently emerged infectious diseases

The World Health Organization has warned that the source of the next human pandemic is likely to be zoonotic, and that wildlife is a prime culprit. While the current list of known emerging infectious diseases is a major concern, it is the unknown virus lurking out there, with a potential for efficient human to human transmission that may pose the biggest pandemic threat.

A rapidly spreading lethal airborne zoonotic virus would, of course, be a major concern. You may remember the 2011 movie Contagion, which showed a fast-moving epidemic and the struggle to find a cure and control the panic. The ABC’s Catalyst story Virus Hunters also demonstrates the threat of quickly spreading diseases, and looks at the research our scientists do in the high containment facilities at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

If we want to fight these emerging threats and come out on top, we need to take a different approach to what we have done in the past and integrate medical, veterinary, ecological and environmental research.

This is what we refer to as the One Health approach – a combined approach to animal, human and environmental health, and the idea that we can all benefit from working together to value and solve the health problems of the world and reduce the risk of the next pandemic.

We believe it’s important to study and compare the disease in both the natural and spillover hosts. For example, understanding the differences between the immune systems of domesticated and wild animal hosts and comparing them to people is crucial for identifying the underlying disease mechanisms involved in zoonotic infections, and for developing new strategies for disrupting their transmission to humans.

This has important implications for predicting, preventing and controlling spillover events, and for the development of new therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics.

Photo of the exterior of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria

Improving knowledge, prevention and treatment of zoonoses is the focus of the One Health research that we’re undertaking with our national and international partners, and within our unique high containment facility at AAHL– the world’s most sophisticated high containment facility. Focusing our research efforts in this area will assist in facilitating the development and application of effective and sustainable community health strategies. There is a growing view that a One Health approach will be critically important for our preparedness for the next zoonotic pandemic.

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

About the Authors

 Photo of John LowenthalJohn Lowenthal is Theme Leader for A One-Health approach to Emerging Infectious Diseases, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship

John’s research is in the area of veterinary health and immunology, including studying the innate immune responses to viral diseases, assessing the ability of immune modulators such as cytokines to enhance resistance to disease and improve vaccine efficacy, using RNA interference to modulate disease-resistance, development of novel therapeutics for zoonotic viruses (H5N1 flu, Hendra virus) and the development of disease-resistant animals.

Photo of Andrew Bean

Andrew Bean is Stream Leader for Animal Biosecurity, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship.

Andrew is an immunologist working to improve animal and human health with a ‘One Health’ approach. He joined CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in 1998 and the emphasis of his work is now on the innate immune response and the therapeutic and immuno-enhancing qualities of cytokines with the potential to improve health. His current research areas include avian influenza, Hendra virus, immune molecules and receptors, developing and assessing antiviral therapy, vaccines and adjuvants and therapeutics.

Our role protecting Aussies from the scary stuff

Part of the Biosecurity Series

By Gary Fitt, Director of CSIRO’s Biosecurity Flagship

When our biosecurity scientists introduce themselves to people outside the organisation and say their job is to help to protect Australia from nasty pests and diseases, they’re normally met with a puzzled expression. Soon the puzzlement turns to awe, and is followed by questions like ‘You mean you get to wear those big suits like Dustin Hoffman in the Hollywood thriller Outbreak?’

While some of our scientists work in high containment laboratories, kitted out in special protective ‘space suits’ to research deadly diseases, our work in biosecurity is much broader.

Scientists in orange high containment suits inside lab

Our scientists working in the high containment area at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong

Biosecurity threats extend beyond infectious diseases to include weeds, invasive animals and insects. These all have the potential to devastate our crops, livestock and farming profits, our environment and even human health.

Historically, Australia’s strong quarantine measures and geographic isolation have protected us from some of the most serious impacts posed by exotic pests and diseases circulating around the world, but the movement of plants, animals and people across the globe and a changing climate are placing pressure on Australia’s future ability to protect itself from exotic pest and disease threats.

To address these challenges, we’ve reorganised our biosecurity related research activities into our new Biosecurity Flagship (you can find the full details in the brochure) to bring scale and connectivity to help Australia prepare for and prevent the spread and impacts of pests and diseases.

What’s a Flagship you ask? In a nut-shell it’s a large-scale research program which uses world-class science to deliver powerful solutions that tackle Australia’s major challenges and opportunities. This new flagship focuses our research across animal, plant and environmental science to more rapidly develop solutions to address Australia’s major biosecurity challenges.

Picture of man standing outside wearing a gray suit and looking at the camera

Dr Gary Fitt, Director of CSIRO’s new Biosecurity Flagship

Australians are aware of the damage that diseases, weeds, invasive animals and insects can inflict on crops, livestock, properties, farm profits and on human health. Biosecurity is all about preventing or keeping the impact of these threats and outbreaks to a minimum. Through research, we are working to reduce the risk of pests and diseases entering Australia, as well as improving the effectiveness of our mitigation and eradication responses.

We’ve traditionally tackled wildlife, animal and human diseases completely separately, but what we’re doing now through the Flagship’s integrated activities is taking a ‘One Health’ approach to understanding how these viruses spread between wild animals, livestock and people, and how to reduce the risks or be prepared for rapid response.

For instance, to deal with zoonotic diseases (those that can pass from animals to people), we’re adopting a more coordinated approach to understanding the multidimensional links between wild animals, livestock production, the environment and global public health.

CSIRO’s One Health approach has already been successful with the development of a horse vaccine against the deadly Hendra virus. Flying foxes carry the disease, although they are not affected by it, and the virus is lethal when transmitted to horses and from infected horses to humans.  By working together, we realised that there wasn’t much we could do to reduce bat populations, and vaccinating people would be too expensive and too lengthy a process. We identified the horse vaccine as the most direct and effective strategy for the protection of both people and horses, breaking the chain of virus transmission from flying foxes to horses, and then to people, and protecting the horses themselves from a devastating infection that would otherwise most likely lead to their death.

The improved coordination of biosecurity research through the Flagship will enable us to better safeguard public health, the environment and the economy into the future.  It will also greatly assist other countries as they too strive to deal with the pests and diseases that continue to spread globally and threaten general health.

Biosecurity is a system of shared responsibility across layers of government, which needs a statistically sound understanding of risk, pathways of entry, optimised surveillance and rapid diagnosis. Working with national and international research bodies, and the operational agencies responsible for delivering biosecurity, we will work across all these issues to jointly tackle biosecurity threats head on.

Next Thursday marks the official launch of the Biosecurity Flagship. To celebrate the launch, over the coming week we will feature a series of blog posts highlighting some of the Flagship’s activities.

We’ll also be featuring a special post from our guest blogger, author,  Nobel Laureate and 1997 Australian of the Year, Peter Doherty.

Join the Conversation: #bflaunch

About the Author

Photo of Gary FittDr Gary Fitt is Director CSIRO’s Biosecurity Flagship, and is focused on protecting Australia from the biosecurity threats and risks posed by serious exotic and endemic pests and diseases.

Octopus, spaceship, or virus?

By Jayden Malseed

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but we’re hoping these brightly coloured images can tell an even bigger story.

At first glance you may think the image below is part of an octopus tentacle, or maybe the underside of an alien spaceship from the 1996 movie Independence Day, or perhaps even something else entirely.

Microscopic blue and green image of a ferret's kidney infected with Hendra virus

Is it an octopus? Is it a spaceship?…nah…it’s only 200 microns wide!

It’s actually a section from a ferret’s kidney that is infected with Hendra virus,  and has been taken with a confocal microscope.

Now this isn’t just your ordinary microscope. Costing roughly $750 000, the microscope is designed to focus on fluorescent colours that have been ‘tagged’ to specific components, which then show up on a big computer screen, giving us these incredible pictures.

The green highlights are the cells that have been infected by Hendra, while the blue highlights are the cell nuclei. To create this picture an antibody is dyed fluorescent green, which then attaches to the viral proteins, effectively colouring it green.

The vital research, led by microscopist Dr Paul Monaghan, uses these images to study the cell biology of Hendra virus. The confocal microscope, which is located within the high containment facility at our Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong Victoria, helps Paul and his team better understand the virus, and to be able to answer questions such as why it attacks certain cells, and what it does when it gets to a cell.

“We’re developing a deeper understanding of the virus by using the microscope and the images, and if we can pinpoint a specific stage in the virus lifecycle and say to ourselves ‘this is the point we need to stop it’ then that would be enormous”, Paul explained.

This is a confocal image of tissue culture taken 18 hours after inoculation with Hendra virus, and is about 100nm wide

This is a confocal image of tissue culture taken 18 hours after inoculation with Hendra virus, and is about 100nm wide

The two images to the right are slightly different from the first. Where the first was a section from a kidney, these are taken from cells growing in tissue culture. We have also labeled two virus proteins: one red and one green.

They demonstrate how the Hendra virus has infected the cells, and after 14 hours has fused those cells together to form what is called a syncytium. The green/blue round circles are the nuclei – normally one in each cell – but the rest of the cell is relatively unaffected.

This is a confocal image of tissue culture taken 124hours after inoculation with Hendra virus, and is about 100nm wide

…and after 24 hours.

After 24 hours, the infection has progressed and newly made virus proteins are gathering at the edge of the cell (next to the black areas) to form new viruses. The red and green proteins are now together and can be seen as an irregular orange line at the edge of the cell.

These images allow Paul and his team to study the virus at different stages of its lifecycle, and and will be incredibly helpful for future research with Hendra virus and other related viruses that threaten the biosecurity of our animals, people and environment.

This research is part of our wider program of work on bats and the viruses they carry.

First Hendra, now bat lyssavirus, so what are zoonotic diseases?

The global focus on emerging infectious disease has turned to bats since they were identified as the probable source of SARS. Image: Toby Mann

By Linfa Wang, Science Leader in Virology and Gary Crameri, Virologist, Australian Animal Health Lab

The last 30 years have seen a rise in emerging infectious diseases in humans, of which more than 70% are zoonotic. Zoonoses are diseases that normally exist in animals but have the potential to transmit to humans. They can be caused by many different infectious agents including bacteria, fungi and viruses.

Zoonotic infections have always been a part of the human disease landscape and most have come from domestic animals. The long lists includes anthrax, tuberculosis, plague, yellow fever and influenza. But with changes in environment, human behaviour and habitat destruction, these biosecurity threats are increasingly emerging from wildlife species.

Although it was established over a century ago that rabies was linked to bats, the research community was surprised to find that the SARS virus – which claimed more than 800 lives and cost more than $80bn globally – emerged from bats to civets and ultimately infected humans in the wet markets of southern China.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and most infectious disease experts agree that the source of the next human pandemic is likely to be zoonotic and wildlife is likely the prime suspect. While much effort has understandably gone into preparations for avian influenza, the next deadly pandemic may be the result of a currently unknown zoonotic agent.

Since the identification of bats as the probable source of the SARS epidemic, the global focus on emerging infectious disease has turned to them to understand and ultimately predict the source of the next human pandemic.

The Marburg virus emerged from bats in Africa and Asia. Image: Microbe World/Flickr

In the last 20 years, a significant number of highly lethal viral diseases have emerged from bat species across the world. These include Hendra virus and Australian bat lyssavirus in Australia and Nipah virus in Malaysia and Bangladesh, where regular outbreaks reach mortality levels of 100%. Haemorrhagic fever viruses, including the feared and lethal Ebola and Marburg viruses, have also emerged from bats in Africa and Asia.

After crippling the globe in 2003 and 2004, SARS appeared to have vanished until last year when there was a deadly human SARS-like outbreak in Saudi Arabia. It killed six out of 12 infected patients and cases of infection continue to emerge. Known as SARI (severe acute respiratory infection), this infection has now shown the critical capacity to transmit from one person to another and, like its precursor, initial evidence supports its emergence from bats.

Zoonotic diseases in humans can take several different courses. For some, like rabies and West Nile virus, humans are “dead-end” hosts. That is, they transmit (spill over) from their animal reservoir (host) into humans but as there’s no subsequent human-to-human transmission, the disease is restricted from spreading.

Others, such as SARS and avian influenza, spill over to humans, cause disease and are able to transmit from person to person before being eradicated or “burning out” from the human population, leaving no residual infection except in its animal host.

Many animals carry viruses that can be transmitted to humans. Image: Penn State

The third are diseases such as HIV AIDS, which spilled out of primates decades ago and has persisted in the human population ever since. And measles and mumps, which probably entered the human population thousands of years ago and are somewhat controlled but still circulating.

It’s impossible to completely safeguard against zoonotic diseases but steps can and are being taken to limit the opportunity for spill-over events through monitoring and rapid response when and where they do occur.

Controlling zoonotic diseases and protecting our animals, people and environment from increasing biosecurity threats will not only take a global effort but a multidisciplinary one. It cannot be addressed adequately with traditional human medical strategies where disease is fought in the human population only.

If we are to prepare and respond adequately to the next zoonotic attack, the approach needs to be diverse, taking in medical, veterinary, ecological and environmental factors. The transition will be complex, but necessary if we are to protect the global community from zoonotic disease as best as we can. After all, the stakes are high.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The man in the suit

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.

Three people wearing blue overalls standing infront of encapsulated suits that are hanging from hooks

Shawn preparing to ‘suit up’ with colleagues Bronwyn Clayton, left, and Andrea Certoma, right.

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.

Shawn hard at work in the highly secure PC4 lab

Shawn hard at work in the highly secure PC4 lab

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.”

Shawn testing his headset

Shawn testing his headset

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!”

Four minutes down...only four more to go!

Four minutes down…only four more to go!

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).

Long life and resistant to diseases? Our money’s on bats to survive the apocalypse

Bats are amazing creatures. They’ve been around for at least 65 million years, and in that time have become one of the most abundant and widespread mammals on earth.

Picture of chinese micro bat David's Myotis, with mouth open and wings spread, on a black background

How scary does he look!? The David’s Myotis isn’t as big as he’d like you to think…he’s a Chinese micro bat

Our Bat Pack, a team of researchers at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory  (AAHL) in Geelong, conduct a wide range of research into bats and bat borne viruses, and their potential effects on the human population, as part of the effort to safeguard Australia from exotic and emerging pests and diseases.

Their paper, published today in the journal Science, provides an insight into the evolution of the bat’s flight, resistance to viruses, and relatively long life.

The Bat Pack, in collaboration with the Beijing Genome Institute, led a team that sequenced the genomes of two bat species – the Black Flying Fox, an Australian mega bat, and the David’s Myotis, a Chinese micro bat.

Once the genomes were sequenced, they compared them to the genomes of other mammals, including humans, to find where the similarities and differences lay.

Dr Chris Cowled hard at work

Dr Chris Cowled hard at work

Chris Cowled, post-doctoral fellow at AAHL says the research may eventually lead to strategies to treat, or even prevent disease in humans.

“A deeper understanding of these evolutionary adaptations in bats may lead to better treatments for human diseases, and may eventually enable us to predict or perhaps even prevent outbreaks of emerging bat viruses,” Dr Cowled said.

“Bats are a natural reservoir for several lethal viruses, such as Hendra, Ebola and SARS, but they often don’t succumb to disease from these viruses. They’re also the only mammal that can fly, and they live a long time compared to animals similar in size.”

Close up picture of face of black flying fox

The Black Flying Fox, an Australian mega bat

Flying is a very energy intensive activity that also produces toxic by-products, and bats have developed some novel genes to deal with the toxins. Some of these genes, including P53, are implicated in the development of cancer or the detection and repair of damaged DNA.

“What we found intriguing was that some of these genes also have secondary roles in the immune system,” Dr Cowled said.

“We’re proposing that the evolution of flight led to a sort of spill over effect, influencing not only the immune system, but also things like ageing and cancer.”

The research was a global effort involving the Beijing Genome Institute in Shenzhen, China; Australia’s national science research agency, the CSIRO; the University of Copenhagen; Wuhan Institute of Virology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences; the Naval Medical Research Center and Henry M. Jackson Foundation in the USA; Uniformed Services University, USA; and the Graduate Medical School at the Duke-National University of Singapore.

Media Contact: John Smith, CSIRO Animal, Food and Health Sciences; 07 3214 2960; 0467 736 671;

Vaccine arrives to boost the frontline fight against Hendra virus

Australian horse owners and the equine industry receive an important boost in their fight against the deadly Hendra virus today, with the introduction of Equivac® HeV vaccine.

The vaccine, available under permit from registered veterinarians, is for use only in horses and aims to protect the Australian equine population against this killer disease. With a high mortality rate, Hendra virus has claimed the lives of more than 60 horses, including nine deaths in 2012 alone.

Info graphic showing details of the transmission and clinical signs of the Hendra Virus

This infographic explains the transmission and clinical signs of the Hendra virus

The threat of Hendra virus extends well beyond horses with four out of the seven people infected with the virus dying as a result of the infection. With no known cure, the Equivac HeV vaccine is set to become the most effective defence against this disease.

‘The vaccine is a major win for people working in veterinary practice, who are at great risk of Hendra infection,’ Dr Ben Gardiner, President, Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) said. ‘This vaccine significantly decreases the risk to horse owners, handlers and veterinarians.’

Vet administering the Equivac HcV vaccine

The Equivac HeV vaccine administered to the first horse by Dr Nathan Anthony in Brisbane, Qld.

The Equivac HeV vaccine was developed in collaboration with four international organisations. In Australia, CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) worked in close partnership with Pfizer Animal Health. Additionally, US organisations, the Uniformed Service University of the Health Sciences (USU) and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine (HJF) have also contributed to the development of this important vaccine.

Pfizer Animal Health was involved from early on in the process, contributing to formulation, industrialisation, production and distribution of the vaccine.

“Our involvement in the collaboration to develop Equivac HeV speaks to our determination to support the veterinary community and equine industry with effective vaccines to aid in the control of potentially life-threatening diseases such as the Hendra virus,” said Mike van Blommestein, Division Director, Pfizer Animal Health Australia.

Additionally, it has also managed the formal regulatory approval process including those safety and efficacy trials required by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority for the granting of permit approval, as well as fulfilling the requirements of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.

Image of person in high containment laboratory suit

A CSIRO Scientist working in the high-containment area of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory

CSIRO has maintained a significant program of Hendra virus research since it was first identified and has contributed critical technical knowhow and advice on the virus to the partnership. CSIRO also provided the safe handling of Hendra virus and testing of the Equivac HeV at its high containment facility in Geelong, Victoria – the only laboratory in the world capable of such high-risk work.

Leading the specialist team from CSIRO, Dr Deborah Middleton,a veterinary pathologist, has a deep understanding of the need for an equine vaccine to aid in the prevention of the spread of Hendra virus.

Photo of Dr Deborah Middleton

CSIRO’s Dr Deborah Middleton

‘As a veterinarian, I have seen firsthand how Hendra virus has created difficult working conditions for my colleagues and any Australian who works with horses,’ Dr Middleton said.

‘A horse vaccine is crucial to breaking the cycle of Hendra virus transmission from flying foxes to horses and then to people, as it can prevent both the horse developing the disease and passing it on.

‘For the first time, we have a Hendra virus specific tool that provides vets with a greater level of safety when they come into contact with sick horses.’

US partners, HJF and USU, also played an important role in the initial stages of the development of Equivac HeV vaccine. A research team at USU, led by Dr Christopher Broder, worked for more than a decade to find preventive treatments for both Hendra and Nipah virus infections.

Contributing to this work, HJF provided intellectual property advice and guidance to Dr Broder’s team to ensure the Hendra virus vaccine moved from the military to the civilian world.

Pfizer Animal Health is now working to supply Equivac HeV vaccine to those areas with the greatest need across Australia.

Infographic of explaining the history of the Hendra virus

The history of Hendra explained

They will also oversee the training and accreditation of veterinarians working with the vaccine as well as the supply and maintenance of a national vaccine register for horses, requiring veterinarians to record details of a horse’s location and vaccination status.

While the introduction of a vaccine represents a significant step in countering the Hendra virus, it is still important that veterinarians and those who work with horses take precautions to safeguard against infection.

‘Although Equivac HeV will provide enormous reassurance for Australians in contact with horses, owners should still take caution around places flying foxes congregate. Anyone handling a sick horse should continue to take precautions,’ Dr Gardiner added. ‘Simple measures such as using personal protective equipment and clothing, quarantining sick horses from other animals and people and following good hygiene practices as a matter of routine, can greatly reduce the risk of the disease.’

CSIRO has maintained a significant program of research on the deadly Hendra virus, since the virus was first identified in 1994.  This work is part of CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship’s commitment to protecting the health of our animals and people from biosecurity disease threats.

The Hendra virus horse vaccine project has received significant funding from State and Federal governments over the years. Most recently, in 2011, the Intergovernmental Hendra Virus Taskforce was formed and additional funding was provided through the National Hendra Virus Research Program to ensure critical timelines for vaccine development were maintained.

Further information

For further information, pre-recorded video footage or an interview, please contact:

Emma Wilkins, CSIRO Biosecurity Flagship

0409 031 658

Katherine Barbeler, Weber Shandwick:

0439 941 632

For more information about the Equivac HeV vaccine, visit health4horses

Read more news@CSIRO posts about the Hendra Virus

Scientists meet on biosecurity disease threats

World-renowned scientists are meeting today at the Emerging Infectious Diseases Symposium (EIDS2012), in Geelong, Victoria, to help improve our ability to protect people and animals from increasing biosecurity threats, such as Hendra virus and dengue fever.

The Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (GCEID) is hosting the two-day Symposium, which is bringing together the critical areas of One Health – a combined approach to animal, human and environmental health.

According to Professor Martyn Jeggo, the director of CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), emerging infectious diseases are a serious concern.

“In Australia we have seen the damage a Hendra virus outbreak can cause, and globally we witnessed the emergence of SARS and how rapidly it spread from animals to people, and then around the world,” Professor Jeggo said.

“This meeting is providing us with an opportunity to share research into new diagnostic tools, drivers for emergence of disease and innovative control strategies that will allow us to not only respond to disease outbreaks more effectively but explore ways to predict where and when the next pandemic might strike.”

One of the meeting highlights includes updates on the progress of Hendra virus research projects that were funded by the Intergovernmental Hendra Virus Taskforce in 2011, under the National Hendra Virus Research Program. This will include work on bat ecology, surveillance tools, pathogenesis and Hendra virus vaccines.

“While much of this research is in the early stages, we need to maintain and continue adding to the number of tools that we have to help effectively manage the risks from this devastating virus,” Professor Jeggo said.

Conference host GCEID is an innovative research partnership between CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory, Barwon Health and Deakin University focused on identifying, monitoring and developing treatments for new infectious diseases as they spread between animals and people.

To further promote effective national collaboration and coordination of emerging infectious disease research, scientists from CSIRO’s Biosecurity Flagship, along with representatives from GCEID, the Queensland Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Sydney Emerging Infections and Biosecurity Institute will present their work.

The following experts are among the EIDS2012 key note speakers:

  • W. Ian Lipkin – Director of the Center for Infection and Immunity, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health and Professor of Neurology  and Pathology at College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, USA
  • Ralph Tripp – Centre for Disease Intervention, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Georgia, USA
  • Ashley St John – Emerging Infectious Diseases Program, Duke National University of Singapore, Singapore.

For further information please visit the official website: EIDS2012 (Emerging Infectious Diseases Symposium) [wiki site].

Media: Emma Wilkins. Ph: +61 3 5227 5123. Alt Ph: +61 2 409 031 658. E:

A ‘quantum’ step towards on-the-spot Hendra virus detection

CSIRO scientists, in collaboration with researchers at the Bio21 Institute at the University of Melbourne, have developed a new method which could pave the way for a portable Hendra virus biosensor.

In a paper published in the journal of Advanced Healthcare Materials, CSIRO scientists detail the outcome of the study designed to find a faster, simpler way to detect the virus.

Hendra virus was discovered in 1994 following an outbreak of illness in a large racing stable in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra.

Current detection methods are mainly lab-based and require samples to be shipped to state or national testing labs. CSIRO’s tests have shown that this new method can deliver a positive or negative test result, under lab conditions, within 30 minutes.

The hope is this can be reduced to 10 minutes in the future, making portable detection a reality. The team tested three new detection methods and found that by using quantum dots – to increase the sensitivity of current analytics methods (assays) – they were able to simplify the detection process to the point where the creation of a portable sensor is now possible.

The method uses a similar principle as a current lab technology, known as Luminex, but the combination of quantum dots and magnetic nano-particles allows the same process to be carried out on a much smaller scale.

“The early detection of viruses, such as the Hendra virus, will greatly enhance the success rate of any biosecurity counter measure,” Dr Paolo Falcaro, CSIRO Research Scientist and leader of the joint research team, said.

Dr Paolo Falcaro

“Further optimisation of the system is required, but this study is a proof-of-concept of the possibility to implement this method in a portable Hendra virus sensor that could be used at the point of care. The most exciting aspect to this technology is it could be used to detect any other virus by simply targeting the virus with the corresponding antibody.”

Quantum dots and magnetic particles were chosen to simplify the reaction required to detect the virus. The biosensor works by targeting the Hendra virus and its antibody. If there is a match, the sensor delivers a positive result.

Professor Paul Mulvaney, of the Bio21 Institute at the University of Melbourne, said: “This is the first application of these fluorescent nanocrystals developed at the University of Melbourne for virus detection and an important example of how the University of Melbourne-CSIRO partnership can help us focus basic science onto important health challenges.

“Getting this test into a microfluidics platform will enable us to develop a generic approach to pathogen detection in the field.”

Mr Simon Hunter

Communication Manager

Materials Science and Manufacturing

Phone: +61 3 9545 8412


Bat virus could hold key to Hendra

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.

Cells infected with Hendra virus (left) and with Cedar virus (right). Hendra virus is the more effective at fusing cells (circled) and spreading its infection. More individual cells remain intact (circled) with Cedar virus and it doesn’t spread nearly as extensively.

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:


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