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Keeping new and emerging diseases in check

05 May, 2006

CSIRO’s A$500 million Australian Animal Health Laboratory is renowned for its safe handling and containment of new and emerging diseases and the major role it plays in keeping Australia disease-free.


The Australian community can be assured that CSIRO scientists are working to keep animal diseases out of Australia. New and emerging viral diseases pose a constant threat to human health and to Australia's livestock industries.

CSIRO researchers are learning more about these zoonotic diseases (those which can pass from animals to people) helping to protect public health and trade.

Diagnosis of infectious disease

Before the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) opened, most specimens for exotic disease exclusion were sent overseas for diagnosis. It took considerable time for results to be obtained, resulting in a loss of control over important trade-related information for Australia.

AAHL was established to undertake exotic disease diagnostics within Australia, providing protection and support for Australia’s trade in the export of animal products and live animals.

The magnitude of this role was highlighted during 1998, when the AAHL testing proved foot and mouth disease (FMD) was not present in the Toowoomba saleyards. These results enabled quarantine bans to be lifted within 24 hours.

AAHL has provided exotic disease training to more than 400 Australian and New Zealand veterinarians, as well as groups from Indonesia, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea.

Without AAHL, the Toowoomba specimens would have been flown to the World Reference Laboratory for FMD at Pirbright, United Kingdom. This would have required at least three days for diagnosis, and caused significant disruption to Australia’s export trade.

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory has supported state veterinary laboratories for more than 20 years, testing thousands of samples for disease exclusion.

These results have provided continuing evidence of freedom from diseases and confirmed a small number of outbreaks of diseases, including avian influenza and Newcastle disease.

Detection of new diseases

AAHL has also helped to detect and characterise many new viral diseases, including:

Nipah virus - this caused a previously unrecorded viral disease that killed more than 100 people and thousands of pigs in Malaysia in 1999. Nipah virus re-emerged in Bangladesh several times since 2001. In the 2005 outbreak, 92 per cent of infected patients died.

Menangle virus - this caused serious reproductive disease in pregnant sows and a flu-like illness in piggery workers in New South Walesn 1997.

Hendra virus - this was discovered to cause an unusual disease in horses and humans in Queensland in 1994/95.

Australian bat lyssavirus - This rabies-like virus  has infected flying foxes and insectivorous bats throughout Australia.

Beilong virus - this new paramyxovirus was identified through collaboration between researchers in Beijing and Geelong. The new virus is described in the March 2006 (346) volume of the respected journal Virology.

AHHL is also working on new diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatments for important animal diseases.

AAHL is recognised by the world animal health organisation, the Office Internationale des Epizooties (OIE), as a reference laboratory for:

- Newcastle disease
- avian influenza
- bluetongue
- epizotic haematopoietic necrosis virus

AAHL is an OIE Collaborative Centre for New and Emerging Diseases, a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and a national reference laboratory for rabies and brucella.

During 2003, AAHL joined international efforts to investigate the animal reservoir of SARS. Recently work on SARS at AAHL, in partnership with scientists from China, was able to demonstrate that the causative virus originated from bats.

This ground-breaking research has opened up a whole new area of research into bats, the viruses they may harbour and the risk that this poses to both people and livestock.


Since many of the exotic diseases handled by AAHL pose major economic threats to Australia’s animal industries, the laboratory can operate at biosecurity level four (BSL4), the highest level available.

The main building includes a thick concrete wall which forms an airtight 'box' around a secure area.

This entire area is held at lower air pressure than the outside world, keeping any airborne infectious agent inside the laboratory. Within this secure box are a series of smaller secure boxes, each with a corresponding drop in air pressure.

All physical containment systems are duplicated and all essential systems such as electricity generators, steam and compressed air plants are triplicated. The air is filtered routinely; all sewage is heat treated and all solid waste is incinerated.

Books and papers cannot be removed from the secure area, so any information transfer must be by fax or computer network.

When working with infected animals, staff must wear special plastic suits to cover their entire body and isolate them from the disease hazard. Showering is compulsory when leaving an infected animal room and when leaving the secure area.

As an added precaution, once outside the secure area, staff must not have contact with livestock animals for seven days.

Continual upgrades and replacement of plant are required to maintain microbiological security at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory.

During 2004, CSIRO started major capital replacement and upgrade works (due for completion in 2007) at the facility, spending in excess of A$30 million. As part of the laboratory upgrade, a new Diagnostic Emergency Response Laboratory (DERL) is being built, ensuring that AAHL can meet the diagnostic surge capacity demands should an outbreak of major exotic animal disease like foot and mouth disease occur.

Training and education

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory has provided exotic disease training to more than 400 Australian and New Zealand veterinarians, as well as groups from Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

It has also produced a series of exotic disease training videos and slide sets to aid farmers and veterinarians in the management of exotic disease. Three series of videos are available covering:

- rural awareness
- veterinary training
- training for control workers

AAHL is active in transferring technology within Australia and overseas. For example, the tests to detect low levels of the agent responsible for annual ryegrass toxicity (corynetoxins) were transferred to state laboratories, enabling inter-laboratory validation.

AAHL also has an ongoing collaboration with Vietnam — providing staff training in disease investigation and diagnosis for diseases such as:

- swine fever
- avian influenza
- duck enteritis

Further, the laboratory provides expert advice to the Australian and State governments, industry bodies and the private sector on exotic and endemic disease management issues.

As globalisation continues, the risk from new and emerging disease will undoubtedly grow, reinforcing the need for a facility like AAHL in the South East Asian region.

The Australian Animal Health Laboratory is funded by the Australian Federal Government via CSIRO and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and also by industry organisations and commercial companies.

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