Victoria’s AAHL – a world leader in pandemic response

Australian scientists are conducting world-leading research into how population dynamics can be mapped to better understand and prevent the spread of communicable diseases, with far reaching consequences for public health.

Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s (CSIRO) Australian Animal Health Laboratory are on the front line of the world’s defence against pandemics.

From their base in Geelong, Victoria, an hour southwest of Melbourne,  CSIRO scientists are prepared for the next SARS, swine flu, or Ebola outbreak.

The AAHL is one of only six high-containment animal research centres in the world and collaborates closely with leading research laboratories in Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Through the use of cutting edge biotechnology and diagnostic testing, the team of scientists at the AAHL, led by director Dr Kurt Zuelke, have made significant inroads into understanding zoonotic diseases and the way they can pass into human populations.

The team is prepared to mobilise at a moment’s notice in response to any unusual disease outbreak around the world and is continually working on diagnostic tools and testing regimes to identify and respond to potential pandemics.

Through this work they are helping to develop vaccines that could mean the difference between an uncontrollable pandemic and a contained outbreak.

Among the AAHL’s success stories is the identification of the Hendra virus and the development of a vaccine.

The AAHL is a reference lab for disease outbreaks in the Asia Pacific region and works with the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

“We have the capability to investigate previously uncharacterised things. Hendra was a great example of that: Here you saw a new disease that wasn’t characterised and we had to investigate what it was, how it caused disease, how it was spread, and, most importantly, what we could do to counteract it,” Dr Zuelke said.

Recently, the team worked with scientists in Laos to confirm and identify a new fatal strain of avian influenza.

“Our team went up to their lab and worked with them to identify and characterise the virus. We published that work and now we are responsible for providing the diagnostic reagents for that particular strain of virus to all of the public health labs across the world.

“We specialise in comparative animal models for preclinical testing of vaccines and therapeutics. We are currently working on evaluating a ferret model for Ebola.”

Previously, vital medical vaccines were tested on primates, a process that takes years to complete. Using ferrets could offer medical science a short cut for developing successful and safe vaccines to stop a pandemic in its tracks.

“It’s all about trying to shorten the timeline for therapeutics against rare but very dangerous diseases like Ebola, like Hendra, and like SARS. There are about a dozen diseases that the world is worried about and those are what we are tending to focus on.”

Dr Zuelke says the AAHL’s scientists are up with the best in the world and have the facilities to match.

“You couldn’t do this without the infrastructure we have here. When you combine that with partners like the Victorian Infectious Disease lab and the universities we have a really tight nexus.

“Victoria really has an abundance of riches in this space and when you put us all together we can compete globally in emerging infectious disease research and finding solutions.”