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 large outbreak that occurred in West Africa in 2014-15.

The challenge

Ebolavirus disease

A microscopic image of the ebolavirus. A bright aqua blue hook-like shape on a cloudy yellow background

The Asian Ebola Reston strain under the microscope

The 2014-15 outbreak of ebolavirus in West Africa was unprecedented in size with the virus spreading to people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a "public health emergency of international concern" with a total of 28,616 cases and 11,310 deaths associated with this outbreak.

The WHO describes ebolavirus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, as a severe, often fatal illness in people. Symptoms include high fever, bleeding and central nervous system damage.

As yet, there is no proven treatment available for ebolavirus.

Our response

CSIRO research

We're researching the pathogenicity, or disease causing ability, of different ebolavirus strains to understand why the African strains of the virus have a high fatality rate (50-70 per cent) in people, compared to the Asian strain, which does not cause human disease. This work is part of our mandate to study new and emerging infectious diseases to ensure we are prepared should they ever reach Australia.

At AAHL, all work with ebolaviruses is undertaken at the highest level of biocontainment, deep within AAHL's solid walls. Our scientists must work on the virus wearing fully encapsulated suits with an external air supply. Most of our virus work at AAHL is performed using cell and tissue culture. Only when there is no alternative do we work with animals. In the case of Ebola, there are certain solutions that can only be developed and tested by working with a suitable animal model, as they cannot be tested in humans.

The results

Importance of animal models

Any new human therapeutic must first be tested for safety before being given to people. This testing can lead to delays in getting treatments to affected patients if we don’t have appropriate animal models for the particular disease.

Our scientists have developed an animal model that has the potential to be used for effective testing of new Ebola vaccines and therapeutics, treatments that may then go on to save thousands of lives. Our work in this area involves ferrets, which have displayed human-like responses to infection with other high-risk pathogens. We also believe the ferrets may help us identify why there is a difference in virulence between the African Ebola virus and the Asian Reston virus. Understanding this may hold the key to developing an effective vaccine to prevent this deadly disease, or therapeutics to treat it.

AAHL is a highly specialised facility that was designed and built for working with the most contagious and deadly of animal and human infectious diseases. Scientists at AAHL first identified and characterised the deadly Hendra virus, which like ebolaviruses is classified as a 'biosafety level four pathogen'- the most dangerous of viruses without a known cure or vaccine. The team has since been integral in the development of the Hendra virus vaccine for horses, now being administered to protect horses, and as a result people, in Australia.

AAHL, located in Geelong, is one of a handful of high-containment laboratories in the world capable of working on 'biosafety level four' pathogens. The facility was built to ensure the containment of the most infectious agents known and ensure our researchers can safely work with these agents. It is designed and equipped to enable the safe handling of disease agents such as ebolavirus and Hendra virus, at the necessary high containment level.

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