A new and experimental vaccine has been shown to protect horses from the deadly Hendra virus, it was announced today. It could be available as early as 2012.
CSIRO's high bio-containment facility at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory was necessary to safely asses the vaccine's effectiveness. © CSIRO
Dr Deborah Middleton announced the successful progress to develop the vaccine at the Australian Veterinary Association conference in Adelaide today.
It was a fitting forum to announce the vaccine breakthrough, with the last two fatalities from the bat-borne virus being equine veterinarians.
"Our trials so far have shown that the vaccine prevents the infection of horses with Hendra virus," said Middleton, from the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, run by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
Stopping the disease in horses could also help protect people from the disease, as all known cases of the deadly disease in humans have been contracted through horses.
Native Australian fruit bats, or flying foxes, are a natural reservoir for the virus, which can infect horses. Through mechanisms not yet fully understood, it is then capable of infecting people.
"A horse vaccine is crucial to breaking the cycle of Hendra virus transmission from flying foxes to horses and then to people, as it prevents both the horse developing the disease and passing it on," Middleton said.
Hendra virus first appeared in 1994 and five of the 14 known outbreaks have spread to people.
The virus has killed four of the seven people infected.
Hendra is carried by the Australian fruit bat, or flying fox.
© Andrew Breed/Aust DAFF
Depending on further development, field trials and registration, the vaccine may be available as early as 2012.
Australian Veterinary Association president Dr Barry Smyth said the vaccine will be welcomed by both vets and horse owners.
"It's important that veterinarians and horse owners continue with precautions that reduce the risk of spreading the virus and that they report suspected cases immediately," Smyth said.
Development of the vaccine goes back more than 10 years to shortly after CSIRO scientists first isolated the virus following the first outbreak of the disease in Hendra, Queensland.
Development of the vaccine is the result of a close collaboration with Dr Christopher Broder, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences - the US federal health sciences university - supported by the US National Institutes of Health.
However, the high security bio-containment facility at Australian Animal Health Laboratory was essential for evaluating its beneficial effects.
"Our biosecurity facility at AAHL is the only laboratory in the world where this work could have been done," Middleton said.
"It has been slow, painstaking and high-risk work, and the credit is due to many people who have worked on this since 1994," Middleton said.
Recent work on evaluating the vaccine was jointly funded by the CSIRO, the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Queensland Government Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation.