From our world-class maximum containment laboratories, our scientists are focused on trying to determine how Ebola causes such severe disease in humans, as well as on the development, testing and evaluation of vaccines and therapeutics to reduce the impact of future outbreaks.

Current situation: Public Health Emergency of International Concern…again!

The World Health Organization has declared Ebola as a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, for the second time in five years. Previously, the outbreak in West Africa mainly affected Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, with 28,646 cases and a 40 per cent mortality rate. In other words, the epidemic killed five times more people than all other known Ebola outbreaks combined. A Public Health Emergency of International Concern was declared between 8 March 2014 and 29 March 2016.

After sporadic outbreaks in 2017 and 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo is now experiencing the world’s second largest recorded outbreak. 2,935 people have been infected since 1 August 2018, with a 57 per cent mortality rate. While most of the cases have been in the region of Kivu, the disease has now spread to Goma, where 2 million people live; neighbouring Uganda; and is only 70 kilometres away from South Sudan.

Ebola 101

Ebolavirus has six known species, of which the most important are Zaire (EBOV) and Sudan (SUDV). Zaire Ebolavirus has been responsible for the current and the previous Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning it passes from animals to people. As with SARS, Hendra or Lyssavirus, bats have been identified as the reservoir host. The virus spreads to humans through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals or through people consuming an infected animal. There is good evidence to suggest other mammals like gorillas, chimpanzees and antelopes are the likely transmission host to people.

Picture of the ebola virus under a microscope

Ebola ā€“ an artificially coloured electron microscope image of the virus

Once a person is infected, the virus can spread to other people by close contact, including direct exposure with bodily fluids or through exposure to objects such as needles that have been contaminated with blood or infected secretions.

Infected individuals can be infectious for weeks after recovery from the acute illness. People most at risk include health workers and family members or others who are in contact with an infected person.

The virus is feared for its rapid and aggressive nature. When the virus gains access to the human body, it starts attacking the vascular system and the walls of the blood vessels. This prevents blood from clotting causing internal or external bleeding. Many people die from the shutdown of vital organs like the liver and kidneys. Diagnosing Ebola in its early stage is difficult. Its early flu-like symptoms such as headache and fever are not specific to Ebolavirus infection and are seen often in patients with more commonly occurring diseases in the region like malaria and cholera.

As with many emerging infectious diseases, treatment is currently limited to pain management and supportive therapies to counter symptoms like dehydration and lack of oxygen. Public awareness and infection control measures are vital to controlling the spread of disease. Albeit no vaccine has been approved for human clinical use, an experimental vaccine (rVSV-ZEBOV) has been used during the Public Health Emergency of International Concern under a compassionate use protocol.

What is the CSIRO doing?

Due to the severity of Ebola infections, work with the virus requires laboratory facilities with the highest level of containment (“Bio-Safety Level-4” or BSL4). This means that scientists working with the virus need to wear fully-encapsulated “space suits” with a dedicated air supply, within a laboratory that are deep within the facility’s solid walls and specially-designed to minimise the risk of the virus escaping.

These facilities are expensive and require continual monitoring and maintenance. As a result, there are only a handful of places in the world where this work can be performed. Within Australia, the CSIRO Dangerous Pathogens Team conducts Ebola research within the maximum containment laboratories at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong.

The research that is carried out at CSIRO is focused on trying to determine how the virus causes such severe disease in humans, as well as on the development and testing of vaccines and therapeutics to reduce the impact of future outbreaks. Our scientists work with academia, industry, international funding bodies and other public sector organisations to conduct world class pre-clinical studies for Ebola and other dangerous pathogens requiring high containment.

Scientists working on zoonotic agents require the highest level of biosafety

For several years our researchers at Australian Animal Health Laboratory have been researching the Reston Ebolavirus strain, which is endemic in parts of Asia. In 2013, following approval from the Australian Government, we imported several Ebola virus isolates including the Zaire Ebolavirus strain from Africa for research purposes. There are strict international protocols, government approvals and security measures in place to ensure such viruses are transported and imported safely. We are investigating the pathogenicity, or disease-causing ability, of these viruses, to understand why the African strains of the virus have a high fatality rate in people, compared to the Asian strain, which does not cause human disease.

Combating dangerous pathogens

Recent growth and geographic expansion of human populations and the intensification of agriculture has resulted in a greater risk of infectious diseases being transmitted to people from wildlife and domesticated animals. Increased global travel means there is a greater likelihood that infectious agents, particularly airborne pathogens, can rapidly spread among the human population. Together, these factors have increased the risk of pandemics – it’s not so much a matter of if, but when. While the current list of known emerging infectious diseases is a major concern, it’s the unknown viruses, with a potential for efficient human-to-human transmission that pose the biggest threat.

Fortunately, Australia has a robust system to deal with an emergency disease outbreak, including our very own Australian Animal Health Laboratory, a globally recognised bio-secure zoonoses laboratory, and scientific and medical experts linked via a national veterinary and public health laboratory network.

Do you have preclinical research and development needs?

The CSIRO Dangerous Pathogens Team performs research, development and preclinical evaluation of medical countermeasures for dangerous pathogens affecting humans and animals (zoonoses), especially those requiring high containment at Bio-Safety Level-4 or 3.

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