CSIRO bat pack helps unravel Hollywood Contagion

By October 19th, 2011


A reference to research undertaken by CSIRO’s “bat pack” team highlights the role CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong, Victoria, would play in a real-world version of Hollywood’s latest disaster flick – Contagion.

Starring Matt Damon and released in Australian cinemas today, the movie paints a horrifying scenario of a deadly virus spreading around the globe in a matter of days. The fictitious virus is based on the very real Nipah virus, a relative of Hendra virus.

In a real-life pandemic scenario AAHL would provide expertise and support to state, federal and international health agencies and governments.

As the name suggests, the “bat pack” undertakes research to better understand bat immunology and how bats co-exist with the viruses they carry to identify strategies to control viruses, such as Hendra virus, from spreading to other animals and people.

According to CSIRO’s Gary Crameri one of the key areas the team is looking at is establishing and characterising bat cell lines to assist in developing faster, more sensitive surveillance tools to help identify new and emerging bat-borne viruses.

“Although our research has the potential to radically change the risk management of emerging infectious diseases within Australia and worldwide, we never imagined it would appear in a Hollywood blockbuster,” Mr Crameri said. 

For he and his colleagues, working at the highest level of biosecurity in AAHL – the world’s most advanced biocontainment facility – is part of a normal working day.

“Working with dangerous and incurable diseases requires working at Biosafety Level 4, or BSL4, where we protect ourselves by wearing space-suit-like protection with our own oxygen supply.  AAHL provides a unique resource for Australia and our capacity to work with deadly BSL4 disease agents is arguably the best in the world,” Mr Crameri said.

Although the movie is fictional, AAHL Director Professor Martyn Jeggo said Contagion is a frighteningly realistic depiction of just how fast an infectious disease can take root and spread.

“The risk of an emerging disease pandemic is very real,” he said.  “Scientists have identified 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases in people are zoonotic – meaning they spread from animals to humans.”

In a real-life pandemic scenario AAHL would provide expertise and support to state, federal and international health agencies and governments.

“In recent years AAHL has been at the forefront of the discovery and control of such diseases, including SARS, bird flu and Hendra virus.  These events have heightened public awareness of the multidimensional links between wild animals, livestock production, the environment and global public health.”
AAHL not only has world leading experts in such areas as virology, veterinary pathology and microscopy, it is also home to the world’s most sophisticated microbiologically secure research facility of its kind – the large animal facility.

“This facility provides us with the ability and the flexibility to work with any animal species and pathogens at the highest level of biosecurity, which is essential when attempting to learn more about how to manage or control BSL4 viruses,” Professor Jeggo said.

“As a national facility our research is focused on preparing Australia to respond to an animal disease outbreak, helping ensure a scenario such as Contagion does not happen in real life.”  

WARNING SPOILER – How CSIRO science played a decisive role in Hollywood’s Contagion

To understand the virus killing millions of people in Contagion, scientists needed to be able to grow the virus in a laboratory setting.  A virus requires a living cell to reproduce, however the virus was so lethal it killed every cell the scientists attempted to put it into.
The decisive breakthrough comes when Dr Ian Sussman is able to grow the virus in bat cells provided by CSIRO’s ‘bat pack’ – a team of researchers located at AAHL in Geelong, Victoria.

This real world research into bat diseases provided the first step towards developing a vaccine for the virus that was killing millions of people world-wide. 

Learn more about the Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

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