CSIRO sends bird flu test kits to Asia
CSIRO virologists have prepared and distributed reagent kits to South-East Asian countries as part of a UN Food and Agriculture Organisation program to allow poultry populations to be tested for the emerging bird flu virus.
13 June 2013
Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. The emergence of the latest deadly strain of Bird Flu virus H7N9 in China has so far infected 131 people, costing 37 of those their lives. That makes H7N9s mortality rate twice that of SARS. China has been quick to respond to the outbreak, immediately sharing the new virus’s genome with the international scientific community, and sending live samples of the virus to the world’s major Labs, including CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory.
In response Australian Scientists, working on behalf of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation, have now developed and distributed diagnostic test kits to south-east Asian countries so poultry populations can be tested for the emerging Bird Flu virus, which otherwise doesn’t appear to cause disease in chickens or other birds, making finding the source of human infection difficult to trace.
Joining me on the phone to discuss this potentially lifesaving test kit is Doctor Peter Daniels. Now Peter, it’s been a very quick turnaround, the Chinese authorities reported the first three cases of human infection on March 31, what happened from there?
Dr Daniels: Glen, the International Reference Laboratories for Avian Influenza, such as ourselves, compared the sequence of the Chinese isolate with reagents that we have for viruses, you know, similar to this one, and quickly worked out what tests were likely to be useful, and which ones would probably be off target.
Receiving the actual virus allowed those calculations to be tested, and there was an international teleconference, and people agreed very quickly on which particular format the test should be. And CSIRO here in Geelong, knowing that our colleagues in south-east Asia would be anxious to start testing for this new strain of virus, we immediately set up the test in a kit form for distribution to the people in neighbouring countries.
Glen Paul: It sounds like something out of Hollywood. How does the kit actually work?
Dr Daniels: It’s based on a test called a real time PCR test. That’s the standard diagnostic tool these days, and it allows the detection of an infectious agent in a sample in just a few hours. So poultry in marketplaces or on farms can have their specimens taken and sent to a Lab, and a country know very quickly whether infection is being transmitted in the areas where the specimens were taken.
Glen Paul: And there is a cocktail of viruses circulating in the region. How sure were you that you had the right kit for the job in detecting the H7N9 virus?
Dr Daniels: That’s the advantage of having received the virus from China. We were able to test the candidate tests directly against the agent itself, so we had the highest possible level of confidence that the tests being distributed were going to detect that particular virus.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And there’s a 25 per cent mortality rate if you catch it, but how infectious is it?
Dr Daniels: It doesn’t seem to be spread from person to person, which is really important. If we compare it to the pandemic H1N1 virus in 2009 that spread around the world, you know that’s what we fear with influenza virus infections, that they’ll have that high level of contagiousness. But these Bird Flu viruses fortunately, although they have a high case mortality rate, they aren’t spreading person to person, and so we need to be on top of the source of infection in poultry, and trying to eradicate it in poultry before the virus mutates and becomes even more dangerous for people.
Glen Paul: Can poultry catch it back from humans, or is it one way?
Dr Daniels: At the present time I’d say assume that it’s one way. You know, it’s not impossible for animals to become infected with influenza viruses from people, and we see that particularly in pigs from time to time, but it’s not been reported in poultry, to the best of my knowledge.
Glen Paul: Well at least that’s one less way it could mutate. But what do you think are the chances of it further mutating?
Dr Daniels: Influenza viruses mutate continuously so there are always new strains emerging, and the exact changes that would be necessary to make a virus transmissible among people, science has made it a definitive decision on that particular aspect of influenza biology to the present time. But it’s always a possibility, for sure.
Glen Paul: And how prepared are we for the eventuality of a major outbreak?
Dr Daniels: Well any major outbreak of influenza in people is going to be difficult to contain because people move around the world so frequently, and of course people are infectious to other people before they’re actually sick themselves, so a very difficult infection to manage in that sense.
The major public health Laboratories and agencies internationally have worked to identify antigens, as they’re called, for vaccines, so there would be vaccines available should this particular virus be spread person to person, but best to talk to the WHO Collaborating Centres who have that particular responsibility.
Glen Paul: And quite a responsibility it would be, too. Though I must say, Peter, I’m extremely reassured just knowing yourself and the team are working there at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory. Keep up the good work. And thank you very much for sharing your research with us today.
Dr Daniels: Thanks for your interest, Glen.
Glen Paul: Doctor Peter Daniels. And to find out more about the research, or to follow us on other social media, just visit www.csiro.au.