The CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratories (AAHL) is a world-class biological research, diagnosis, surveillance and response institution situated on the outskirts of Geelong, Victoria. As part of our research into themes of epidemiology and disease as part of our upcoming 2013 production at the CSIRO Discovery Centre, we visited AAHL and met with some of their most experienced staff over two days. AAHL works on a broad palette of animal health issues, ranging from those with potentially catastrophic economic impact, such as possible foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in livestock, to issues whose impact predominantly concerns human health, including their high-profile discovery of and research into the Hendra virus. In the case of an outbreak, AAHL has the capacity to screen ten thousand samples per day, and offers laboratory space that operates at the highest level of biosecurity possible in order to work with pathogens of appalling lethality.

We visited AAHL as research for our upcoming production, which will explore the consequences of a fictional disease outbreak. We predominantly focused on the emergence of novel diseases from animals, and the response from an organisation such as AAHL in case of an outbreak to isolate, characterise and neutralise the threat. We also wanted to know what sort of interagency cooperation would be needed to coordinate an effective response.

Foot-and-mouth containment and the pigeon-fancier problem
Dr Sam McCullough, Diagnostics Services Manager 

“If foot-and-mouth disease comes in, it’s a big problem. If it comes in we could not export.”

Foot and Mouth Disease is the most critical and plausible situation that the AAHL is designed to respond to. A scenario similar to the UK’s outbreak in 2001 would be a massive blow to Australia’s livestock trade, which would then majorly impact on the entire economy. AAHL have a massive capacity to deal with this issue. As soon as a report of potential FMD comes in, virtually all the building’s resources and staff can be swiftly dedicated to coordinating a response.

Sam’s role also includes recommending appropriate responses to different outbreaks. One issue that occurred in the last several years was an outbreak of Pigeon Paramyxovirus in Victoria. Pigeon Paramyxovirus initially appeared in fancy pigeons which people keep in their backyards and lofts, not for eating or flying, but for their looks. According to Sam, “the birds are red and have feathered legs and apparently look quite pretty.” The issue with this outbreak was that unlike farm animals and livestock, the owners of fancy pigeons are usually city-dwellers who don’t make their livelihood through their birds. This means that they don’t traditionally have a relationship with AAHL, which makes it harder to provide recommendations.

This is an example of one of the key issues with containment – the number and variety of different groups who must work together and in coordination in order to contain and respond to an outbreak. To prevent the spread to wild pigeon populations and subsequently farmed animals, the action in this case was to quarantine to prevent any movement of show pigeons, which minimised contacts between groups but led to greater die-off within infected coops. Somehow, the disease did manage to jump to wild birds, and so management of the relationship with the pigeon fanciers became quite difficult – the disease was already out there, so what was the point of maintaining the quarantine? Put together, Pre-border, Border and Post-border surveillance gives us a realistic overview of the risk vectors and can help frame an appropriate and fluid response to situations like these.

Foot-and-mouth as a bioterrorist act 

Dr Peter Daniels, Leader Diagnosis, Surveillance and Response Group

“Worst case scenario would be an act of bio-terrorism using foot-and-mouth disease, multiple outbreaks around the country, different strains of the disease.”

We asked every scientist we spoke with in AAHL for their ‘nightmare scenario’, their worst-case vision for an outbreak in Australia. Dr Peter Daniels described a deliberate series of deliberate FMD infections, targeting cattle at different locations around the country with different strains of the disease. This would entail a massive hit to Australia’s economy and be the hardest kind of outbreak for any authority to respond to. However, this kind of action appears not to align with the methods and intentions of most terrorist groups – causing damage to infrastructure and hurting people – which is good news for us.

A more mundane but common concern is people evading quarantine to smuggle animals in and out of the country. Peter told us a story about a man who’d smuggled in ten green pythons stuffed down his pants, taped to his belt. One of them died mysteriously, and on investigating this, AAHL isolated a new virus which targets snakes. This virus is now known in-house as the Trouser Snake Virus.

That’s Ebola, Baby
Dr Alex Hyatt, Head, AAHL Biosecurity Microscopy Facility
“For each disease there’s an image, a eureka moment – it’s like being in a darkened room and you see what is the cause of this major disease – major in that it has economic, environmental health impact, and everyone – politicians, trade, newspapers are demanding to know what’s going on – you’re the only one to see it – alone in a darkened room. You feel pretty good – briefly – then it’s back to reality.”

Dr Alex Hyatt told us about the role of electron microscopy. When an infected sample taken from some sick animal is sent in to the AAHL, one of the key things to take place is that Alex and his cohorts will example those slides under the microscope. There’s no computer substitute for the human eye when it comes to identifying the tell-tale shapes of specific viruses. Ebola, apparently, is shaped like a shepherd’s crook. Another description I’ve heard is that you’ll see a slide full of what look like little question marks, like they’re asking – “What are you going to do now?”

When we dropped by, Alex was examining a sample taken from one of the four white rhinos to recently fall ill and die at Dubbo Southern Plains Zoo. At this stage, there is no clear answer to the question of what killed them, though the three surviving rhinos are apparently doing okay.

I reckon probably don’t Bomb the Bats

Dr Linfa Wang, CSIRO CEO Science Leader/Senior Principle Research Scientist

“Maybe there’s a symbiotic relationship between the bats and the viruses”

We were fortunate to get to chat with Dr Linfa Wang, whose study into bat viruses has had some fascinating results. When a new virus broke out in a suburb of Brisbane in 1994, killing a number of horses and several humans, Dr Wang was the person who discovered that it was a virus which had originated in bats, and gave it the name of Hendra, after the suburb of its origin. Examining the source of Hendra, Dr Wang and his colleagues discovered that bats are major reservoirs of viruses.

AAHL’s research into bat viruses, which also included investigation of the Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia, meant that when SARS erupted in 2001, they were able to advise authorities in affected areas to begin testing bats. Recently, Dr Wang’s team have demonstrated that SARS is a bat coronavirus – from the same family as one of the most common cold viruses – most likely transmitted to humans from bats, via civets.

“People wanted to take bat-related matters into their own hands, with guns. But it’s almost certain that particular stress factors are responsible for causing virus levels to go up.”

With the news that farmers will receive permits to shoot at bat populations, and in light of the Courier Mail’s famous newspaper heading in response to Hendra ‘BOMB THE BATS‘, Dr Wang told us about a range of poorly thought out system-wide responses like colony moving. Many of these have had unintended consequences. With the recent spate of Hendra cases in 2011, there is the possibility that human responses to bats have in fact exacerbated the issue.

 

Veterinary perspective and the role of the community

Dr Deborah Middleton, Senior Veterinary Pathologist
“The virologist thinks the virus causes disease, I think the host causes the disease.”

We also talked to Dr Middleton about bats, and she filled us in more about the utterly terrifying symbiosis bats have with their viruses. Numerous viruses have been isolated from bats which are violently pathogenic to humans but which are completely asymptomatic in bats. In fact, bats are so riddled with viruses in their natural state that there may be some symbiotic relationship at work. Bats have existed in close to their present form for fifty-plus million years, which is easily long enough for co-dependence to emerge. To test whether bats somehow need these viruses as part of their biological function, AAHL has bred a Specifically Pathogen Free (SPF) colony of virus-free bats for observation. As an aside, among the few viruses which produce symptoms in bats are lyssaviruses, such as rabies, which infect nerves directly and may bypass the bats’ innate resistance.

Dr Middleton had a great deal of insight into the human element in instances of animal disease, and the importance of communication when companion animals are involved. In the recent Hendra outbreaks, besides the fact that there were a higher than usual number of separate cases, the most unusual element was the infection of a domestic dog. Although dogs appear not to show symptoms of Hendra, it is believed that they could spread the disease to humans they came into contact with, so the normal response in such an instance is euthanasia of the animal. This sparked an unexpected level of public interest – “the dog had its own Facebook page – Save Dusty the Dog. People were saying ‘Hide from the Government, Dusty.'”


The big picture

Dr Martyn Jeggo, AAHL Director

“If you come together to tackle the issue you’re more likely to get a solution.”

AAHL director Dr Martyn Jeggo gave us an inspiring introduction to the idea of the One Health approach, in which human medical practitioners, animal health practitioners and environmental scientists come together to work on a holistic response to health crises. The idea is that the health of an organism – whether a human, animal or an entire ecosystem – depends on the interactions between these elements.

“Viruses don’t respect borders.”

Martyn described an example of this holistic approach to combating disease: the eradication of rinderpest. Rinderpest is a cattle plague, and one of the most virulent and destructive livestock diseases in history. In the 1950s, a vaccine for rinderpest was developed, and an international effort was undertaken to eradicate the disease completely. Dr Jeggo was part of this effort, and received a UN medal for his part in the project. Rinderpest was finally declared extinct in 2011, only the second disease in history (after smallpox) to be intentionally wiped out.

Martyn also talked to us about the institution’s preparations for an outbreak of FMD. In the UK, there is a facility which contains  FMD vaccine in storage. Australia owns 285,000 doses stored in a liquid nitrogen vat with the Australian flag on it.

Going secure

The afternoon of the second day, we went secure, which means nuding up, walking through an airlocked shower cubicle, and collecting sterile clothing and shoes on the other side. Here’s a model of the facility:


AAHL is a fortress spread over several levels, with a working level in the middle, plantroom levels above and below, and the whole thing encased in an impermeable concrete shell. Whole floors are devoted to waste management and air filtration.


Similar facilities designed around the time of AAHLs construction may use ten to twenty world-class HEPA filters throughout the building. AAHL uses more than a thousand, with every individual airspace filtered and controllable individually (down to each shower cubicle).

Nothing comes out of the bunker’s secure area without decontamination – waste materials are separated according to their threat level and thoroughly roasted in these drums.

 

During our tour a new suite of labs was being prepared to be used for the first time, which entails decontaminating the rooms completely by burning a whole lot of formaldehyde in special woks (on the desk connected to the orange cable at the far end in this image)

At the end of the secure area tour, every bit of clothing we were wearing went into laundry baskets. Passing back through the shower cubicles is impossible without showering for a minimum of three minutes. There’s a selection of shampoos and a helpful picture which reminds you which door goes to the lab and which goes to the outside world.

Then it was goodbyes and back in the cab to Tullamarine, which was expensive.

We’d like to extend our thanks to the scientists who each took an hour out of their days to help us understand the intricacies of the work that they do.

We’d also like to thank Emma Wilkins at AAHL for coordinating the visit and somehow convincing the staff to be so incredibly generous with their time, and Cris Kennedy from CSIRO Discovery for getting the trip off the ground. You guys are tops.

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