The Australian Animal Health Laboratory at night in Geelong, Victoria.
Beating the world's deadliest viral villains
In this vodcast, we go inside CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), the front line of defence in helping to protect Australia from the threat of exotic and emerging animal and human diseases. (5:54)
The player will show in this paragraph
Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROvod, I'm Glen Paul. You've no doubt heard of the deadly Hendra virus, which came out of nowhere back in 1994, and it showed, like many other animal diseases, that it’s capable of crossing over into the human population. That's why I've come here to CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria, to meet the Scientists working on the frontline of Australia's defence in fighting exotic and emerging diseases.
The day of my visit coincided with the opening of a new biosafety level four laboratory which, if you've seen the Hollywood movie Contagion, will know is the most biosecure laboratory you can get. To officially open the new wing Professor Martyn Jeggo was coordinating a ribbon cutting ceremony between the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator the Honourable Kim Carr, and Doctor Glenn Marsh, via video link from the biosecure unit deep within the solid concrete walls of the complex.
Prof Jeggo: On the count of three, if I may, can I ask you both to cut the ribbon, and we’ll do this in a virtual manner. So, Glenn, are you ready?
Dr Marsh: I'm ready, Martyn.
Prof Jeggo: One, two, three. [Audience applause].
Glen Paul: With proceedings now out of the way I was keen to leave the celebrations and check out the new lab. However had I known what was involved, I might have opted to stay for cake instead. Safety Officer, Debbie Logan, explained the procedure for going secure with the help of a mock-up airlock.
Ms Logan: If you see someone in there, please step out of the change area. Otherwise this is where you’ll take off all your clothing, and all your clothing gets put into your allocated locker, which is D, along with the badge that you’re wearing, so you’re standing there naked. Even your underwear – some people seem to think taking the underwear in, ‘cause they’re opening and closing doors – please leave your underwear here, so you’re standing there naked.
Glen Paul: With the induction complete I met up with Emma, who would act as my guide through the bio security maze.
So we’re going to go in here now, there’s a lot of nasties beyond this door, as you can see, so this where I have to get all my gear off, get naked, and head on through to the other side. I won’t be able to take that big camera through because the decontamination would likely destroy it, so I’m going to film the rest of this on this little camera here [demonstrating].
The air lock separating the two worlds would act as a decontamination shower on the way out.
Press this button here. Wait a few moments.
Dressed in the functional attire that had been left for me I was ready to venture out. It’s about now that it really starts to hit home just exactly where you are, sharing living space with some of the deadliest diseases on the planet.
The Scientists working at the highest level of biosecurity have to wear biosecure laboratory suits, which take a bit of getting into, but going to work with dangerous and exotic agents that are fatal to humans, and where there are no vaccines or other treatments available, for Scientists like Sean Todd you wouldn’t have it any other way. But now suited up, he's ready to put in the boot.
Before entering the hot zone I caught up with the Director of the facility, Professor Martyn Jeggo, and asked him about the new laboratory.
Prof Jeggo: It's a new laboratory within our current laboratory complex, and what it’s addressing is the issue that we’ve seen a change in the risk. The risk use to be from most of these nasty viruses to our livestock industries, but we’ve seen more recently an emergence of these diseases from livestock into humans.
There's a lot of changes that are occurring on our planet – there's many more of us; we’re travelling in a way we never use to travel before; we’re entering areas of our ecosystem that we didn’t use to go in before; we've got climate change, and climate change is allowing these viruses to be in different places; we’re urbanising, that we’re into much larger groups, and viruses like large groups of animals or humans to work with. All of those things have resulted in a changed risk profile, and so increasingly we’re seeing actually viruses come from wildlife into our domestic animals, and then into humans.
Seventy-five per cent of new infectious diseases in humans arise from animals, so this new lab allows us to work with those viruses that affect not just livestock, but man as well. In fact the vast majority of the viruses we work with now there is no treatment in man, so we have to make absolutely certain that our guys are safe when working with these. That’s what this new lab does.
Glen Paul: And stepping into the ring with these bad boys every day you certainly would want the best in protection. With that, it was time for some decontamination.
In here is the shower, which I’ll step into shortly and totally wash myself, and leave all these clothes here on this side, so when I go through the door on the other side I’ve got nothing with me that was over in the secure area.
You might be wondering what happens to all the shower water – what if I have picked up some bug that gets washed out down the drain? Well, there’s absolutely no possibility of that. All waste water and sewerage is treated on site. Nothing gets out, not even air, without being filtered and treated. It is after all the world’s most advanced high containment laboratory.
CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory – it's here that Scientists draw the line in the sand in their fight against deadly animal and human disease. And if you’d like to find out more about the research, the work going on here at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, just visit our website www.csiro.au.