New vaccine for the Hendra virus

In 1994, the Hendra virus threatened to stop the Melbourne Cup. Image: Shutterstock.

A vaccine has been found for the virus that nearly stopped the race that stops a nation.

Scientists from CSIRO have developed a vaccine that will help protect horses from the Hendra virus. The virus first appeared in 1994, killing Queensland horse trainer Vic Rail and 14 horses.

Since 1994, there have been 14 outbreaks of this disease. Dr Deborah Middleton, from CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), says the incidence is very low, with most outbreaks involving less than three horses. “However, of the 14 outbreaks, 5 have involved infection of humans. Of the 7 human infections 4 people have died!

“The worst (was) in 2008- one vet and one vet nurse infected, with the vet dying- and 2009- one vet infected who also died.”

The disease initially spreads from flying foxes to horses and on to humans. The vaccine will also protect humans, as it breaks the viruses’ transmission cycle by preventing the horse developing it and passing it on.

In order to develop the vaccine, the scientists isolated the virus after the first outbreak in Hendra, Queensland. It was developed in AAHL’s bio-containment facility, as it is classified as a Biosafety Level 4 agent. Dr Middleton explains “(this) means that it is capable of inducing fatal disease in people and there is no vaccine or antiviral drug available to treat an infected person.

“So it joins an elite group of viruses including Nipah virus, Ebola virus and Marburg in having to be handled in a Biosafety Level 4 facility such as AAHL.”

AAHL is the only bio-containment facility capable of safely handling horses infected with Hendra virus at Biosafety Level 4, as it allows scientists to manage the infection risk while satisfactorily meeting animal welfare expectations.

Dr Middleton says “clearly there are numerous risk management procedures that are undertaken to protect staff and also the environment from contamination, but it is also true that those engaged in research work on vaccines and therapeutics for Hendra must face these risks on a daily basis.”

The vaccine may be available by 2012, depending on further development, field trials and registration.

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