Researchers from Australia, Singapore and the US are joining forces, through a A$20 million partnership, to help pre-empt and prepare the world for the next human pandemic.
8 August 2013
While there might be a trend in Hollywood to focus on fictional diseases that turn people into zombies, the new reality of emerging diseases is no less frightening. To help pre-empt and prepare the world for the next human pandemic researchers from Australia, Singapore, and the U.S., are joining forces through a A$20 million partnership aimed at integrating medical, veterinary, ecological, and environmental research, into a One-Health approach.
To find out more about the collaboration I’m joined by Doctor Gary Fitt, Director of CSIRO’s Biosecurity Flagship. Gary, I’ve heard it said that humanity is more at risk now from a global pandemic than it is from a nuclear war – alarmist or reality?
Dr. Fitt: I don’t think we would like to be alarmist in these situations, but I think there’s real cause for concern, and that’s largely because the world is now so connected that if we do have an emerging infectious disease, something like say the Spanish Flu soon after the First World War, it would travel very rapidly around the world. And our potential to manage that sort of a pandemic, given that the disease can travel from one place to another on a single aeroplane trip, means that we should be concerned.
Glen Paul: Which is why this new initiative is certainly very welcome. How many organisations are involved, and who are they?
Dr. Fitt: The new partnership is essentially between CSIRO and bringing the Australian Animal Health Laboratory of CSIRO into the partnership, together with Duke University from North Carolina, and the National University of Singapore. Now Duke and National University of Singapore already have a partnership in the medical school in Singapore, and so the arrangement we have now, the partnership agreement that we’ve got in place that we plan to lead to an international centre for One-Health is between CSIRO and Duke-NUS.
Glen Paul: And what set of skills does each bring to form this One-Health approach?
Dr. Fitt: As you mentioned earlier, One-Health is essentially about understanding the risk of diseases moving from animals into humans, and so you need to have animal health and veterinary skills, and that’s what we bring very significantly through the Animal Health Laboratory, and you need to have human health medical capabilities, and that comes through the medical school at Duke-NUS. And combined with those two ends of that One-Health spectrum you need skills around ecology and environmental factors that change the interactions between animals and people, and might lead to spill-over events of these diseases.
Glen Paul: Recently a new SARS like virus emerged from the Middle East, and has killed 45 of the 82 people infected since September of last year, is this is the sort of disease most feared by scientists, one spread through coughing?
Dr. Fitt: Yes. I guess SARS, which we were aware of ten years ago now, was the most recent example of an emerging disease that did have human to human transmission. It had significant mortality, killed about 10 per cent of the people that caught it, but the striking thing was how rapidly it travelled around the world. It travelled from China into Hong Kong, and before we knew it, it was in Canada, it was in Europe. Eventually it infected about 8,000 people, killed 800 people, but had massive disruption on the way the world works, massive disruption to tourism, trade, lots of pathways around the world essentially stopped.
That’s the sort of thing we’re concerned about. And even more concerned with some of the more recent diseases, like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, MERS, which has a higher mortality – it’s killed about 50 per cent of the people that have caught it, but hasn’t spread quite like SARS did. At the same time we’ve got the avian influenzas that again emerged significantly some ten years ago – the H5N1 flu virus, which has very high mortality for people, and luckily it doesn’t yet have human to human transmission. But if a virus like avian influenza achieved human to human transmission capability, it would become a significant threat to deal with.
Glen Paul: So aside from these coughing diseases, what other types of potential new diseases are drawing interest or concern?
Dr. Fitt: I guess the best example we’ve seen in Australia has been the Hendra virus, so this is a very deadly virus for people, it’s one of the multitude of viruses that we now know are carried in bats, in this case Australian flying foxes. So they’re the natural reservoir for Hendra and for a range of other viruses. In the case of Hendra the virus has to be transmitted through a horse, so there’s a secondary host involved here – flying fox to horse, and then to humans.
The scary part with humans is that four of the seven people who’ve contracted it from horses have died, and there is essentially no cure for Hendra. What we’ve done in that case – and that’s a classic One-Health issue of human consequence from a disease that resides in bats and causes no disease at all in bats, that’s the intriguing part of that particular disease – but what we’ve done there is to develop a vaccine for horses, and CSIRO released that vaccine in November last year, and that essentially breaks that transmission route from bats to people, and is proving very effective as the vaccine is being rolled out among horse owners.
From a science point of view the great thing that Hendra has given us is a lot of understanding of the emergence of these diseases, where the reservoirs are, how they might be transmitted, and we’ve been able to do a lot of platform science so that we’ve got a range of techniques for studying the viruses, for developing vaccines, for developing other therapeutics, that might give us a much better position for the next emerging virus.
Glen Paul: And that brings me to CSIRO’s Biosecurity Flagship. What role is it performing or undertaking in this space?
Dr. Fitt: Well the Biosecurity Flagship is essentially aggregating CSIRO science in the area of biosecurity, which is the science that helps protect Australia from threats of pests and diseases that might arrive here from overseas. So the Flagship is working across biosecurity for plant industries, biosecurity for animal industries, and from animals to humans, and that’s where the One-Health approach comes out, and also the biosecuirty relevant to Australia’s wider environment, so environmental biosecurity where we worry about some of the invasive species that might impact on the wider environment.
So there’s a broad spectrum of science that we do, all of it focused on protecting the things we care about, Australia’s people, Australia’s economy, and Australia’s environment.
Glen Paul: Hmm, very good. And I, like most I’m sure, very much appreciate the great work being undertaken. Thanks for your time today, Gary.
Dr. Fitt: My pleasure.
Glen Paul: Doctor Gary Fitt. And to find out more about biosecurity, or to follow us on other social media, just visit our website www.csiro.au.