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Hunt for Hendra in other species

Scientists will focus on the effect of Hendra virus on canines and the extra threat it could pose to humans after a pet dog in Queensland was found to be infected.


The research will also investigate whether possums and other species could be playing a role in the spread of the virus.

The Queensland and NSW governments on Wednesday pledged another $6 million for Hendra research over three years, amid a spike in cases in the two states.

Authorities revealed on Tuesday a pet kelpie from a Mount Alford property, southwest of Brisbane, tested positive for the virus.

It’s the first time Hendra has been found in a species other than a bat, horse or human, outside a controlled laboratory experiment.

Biosecurity Queensland says it’s most likely the dog contracted the virus from two of three sick horses on the property that have since died or were put down.

Further tests are being conducted on the dog, but authorities expect it will be put down in line with strict national guidelines on Hendra.

Professor Martyn Jeggo, the director of the CSIRO’s Animal Health Laboratory, says the case will spark more research into the risk of Hendra for dogs.

“We need to look at dogs further. There’s no question about that,” Prof Jeggo told AAP.

“We need to determine how infectious this disease is in dogs, can dogs shed the virus, and what to expect when they get clinically sick.”

When the Hendra virus was first isolated in Australia in 1994, researchers carried out a range of experiments to determine which animals it could infect, Prof Jeggo said. The test animals included dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice and ferrets.

“That work demonstrated cats and guinea pigs were quite susceptible to the virus and both were sick and shed virus,” Dr Jeggo said.

“The other species basically had no reaction, including the two dogs that were infected. “Neither showed clinical signs or shed the virus.”

Biosecurity Queensland principal veterinary epidemiologist Hume Field says new research will also focus on the reason for the recent spike in Hendra cases.

Dr Field – who played a key role in identifying bats as the natural host of Hendra – said it would include looking at whether other species, such as possums, might be spreading the virus.

“We’ll continue to explore whether the transmission of Hendra virus from flying foxes to horses is direct or whether there’s an intermediary species,” Dr Field said.

“All of the investigations to date have shown that there is no missing link … “We’ll particularly focus on tree-dwelling species such as possums.”

Researchers will continue to study the transmission from bats to horses, using infra-red cameras to observe bat activity at night.

The Queensland opposition wants to use smoke bombs and choppers to evict urban bat colonies.

Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman says once bats have been moved on, the trees they roosted in should be cut down.

But Dr Field said culling or trying to move bats from populated areas would be counter-productive.

Scientists know that stressed bats are more vulnerable to Hendra and shed more of the virus.

Meanwhile, CSIRO researchers are pressing ahead with work on a Hendra vaccine for horses.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh said the vaccine was well funded and no amount of extra money would speed up its arrival, expected in 2013.

She said there were no short cuts, as the vaccine – which had shown very promising results – must go through all the necessary trials and processes.


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