Zoonotic disease threat

Our scientists are undertaking research to help protect the health of our animals, people and way of life from emerging infectious zoonotic diseases - diseases that have the ability to pass between animals and people.

The Challenge

Zoonotic emerging infectious diseases are on the rise

The past 30 years has seen a rise in emerging infectious diseases in people, 70 per cent of which are zoonotic, meaning they have the ability to exist in animals but can transmit to people. They can be caused by many different infectious agents including viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Scientists believe that a chance mutation of a SARS-like virus occurred in civet cats infected by bats in a live animal market.

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

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 in 2002-2003 – emerged from bats, passed to civet cats and ultimately infected people in the live animal 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 focused on preparing against avian influenza, the next deadly pandemic may be the result of a currently unknown zoonotic agent.

Spotlight on bats

Since the identification of bats as the 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.

In the past 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 outbreaks have reached mortality levels of 100 per cent. Haemorrhagic fever viruses, including the feared and lethal Ebola and Marburg viruses, have also emerged from bats in Africa and Asia. Intriguingly, bats can carry these deadly viruses without themselves showing signs of disease.

Our Response

World leading science

It is 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.

Lyssavirus has been isolated, or infection demonstrated, in both insectivorous and fruit bats (flying foxes)

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, we need to take a “One Health” approach, taking in medical, veterinary, ecological and environmental factors.

Our scientists have developed world-leading methodologies to isolate viruses, in particular those found in bats.

Our research has led to the characterisation of new viruses and development of vaccines.

Through innovative science and international collaboration, our scientists  have made a sustained and significant contribution to understanding and mitigating the threats posed by emerging infectious diseases  and have become one of the world’s leading emerging zoonotic disease research teams.

From 1994-2010 14 clusters of Hendra virus infection were recorded in horses. © lillisphotography

Saving animal and human lives

The Equivac® HeV horse vaccine (manufactured and marketed by Zoetis Australia), can help to save human lives by protecting horses from Hendra virus, thereby breaking the only known transmission pathway from bats to people.

The Hendra virus vaccine has been heralded internationally as an outstanding example of bringing the medical and veterinary community together to control a major public health threat.

Our researchers are continuing to study new and emerging infectious diseases to ensure we are prepared should they ever reach Australia.

They are developing the knowledge, tools and countermeasures to control and mitigate outbreaks of disease and underpin national security preparedness against pandemic and bioterrorist threats.

Case studies

  • Australian bat lyssavirus

    In 1996, a new virus was discovered in Australian bats. Identified as a lyssavirus, this virus is a close relative of the common rabies virus found overseas.

  • Bats confirmed host of SARS virus

    Our scientists, in collaboration with research partners, identified bats as the natural reservoir of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like coronaviruses.

  • How bats can help shed light on deadly diseases

    CSIRO's bat virology team investigates bat immunology and the relationship between bats and the viruses they carry to assist in developing strategies to help prevent, or control, the spread of disease from bats to other animals and people.

  • Ebola virus research

    Our scientists, located at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria, are part of a global effort to understand the deadly ebolavirus so that we may prevent further outbreaks like the current situation in parts of West Africa.

  • Fighting Nipah virus

    In 1998-99 an outbreak of a new virus, now called the Nipah virus, killed more than 100 people and thousands of pigs in Malaysia.

  • Developing the world's first Hendra vaccine

    In 1994, a deadly new virus threatened to stop Australia's premier horse race – the Melbourne Cup. Over the next 16 years, 18 outbreaks of the now infamous Hendra virus were recorded through Queensland and NSW.

  • Immunity and natural hosts

    Our scientists are putting the spotlight on the immune response to zoonotic infections in the natural host and spillover species. They are investigating how these host-pathogen interactions may impact how diseases are diagnosed and treated in the future.

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