12 May 2023
A koala chlamydia vaccine created and tested at the University of the Sunshine Coast is a step closer to protecting large populations of koalas in the wild.
In a major milestone for a decade-long project, UniSC scientists have vaccinated a wild koala in New South Wales with the chlamydial vaccine, which was developed at the Centre for Bioinnovation by UniSC’s Professor and Queensland Great Peter Timms.
UniSC microbiologist Sam Phillips said it was the first time the research team had caught a wild koala with the sole purpose of vaccinating and releasing it, to test the effectiveness in a wild population.
“This trial is a significant step towards vaccinating a large number of wild koalas,” said Dr Phillips, who is working in partnership with Friends of the Koala and the Department of Planning and Environment.
“We have been vaccinating koalas released from wildlife hospitals and we’ve seen promising protection against disease and death, but this stage only accounted for two percent of the koala population. We needed a method to vaccinate a large percentage of the population, and this is our first time testing that method to see if it is effective.”
Chlamydia in koalas causes blindness, infertility and death. Koala populations have halved over the last 20 years in Queensland and New South Wales, where a parliamentary enquiry found that koalas were likely to be extinct by 2050 without intervention.
“Some populations have up to 80 percent infection rates and it is a significant contributor to population decline,” Dr Phillips said.
After half of the koalas have been vaccinated at the trial site, the team will return to test koala scats on the ground, which they will locate with the support of UniSC’s Detection Dogs for Conservation team.
“We’ve tested the scats before the trial started, and we will return at six month and 12 months to understand the effect the vaccine has had on the wild population,” Dr Phillips said.
After half of the koalas have been vaccinated at the trial site in Ruthven, New South Wales, the team will return to test koala scats on the ground, which they will locate with the support of UniSC’s Detection Dogs for Conservation team.
“We’ve tested the scats before the trial started, and we will return at six month and 12 months to understand the effect the vaccine has had on the wild population,” Dr Phillips (pictured right) said.
The team will establish which scat belongs to which koala through genotype testing, as well as sampling for chlamydia, which can inform on the prevalence of urinary tract infections.
“The findings from this study will inform future modelling and koala management plans as to the level of intervention required to rescue at-risk koala populations for chlamydial infection and disease,” Dr Phillips said.
UniSC developed the chlamydia-specific part of the vaccine, and Canadian group VIDO (the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan) delivers the adjuvant, which is the part of the vaccine that stimulates the immune response.
“We’ve shown the vaccine induces a strong immune response and we have strong data about the protection from disease and death,” Dr Phillips said.
UniSC Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Ross Young said the milestone exemplified the impact that regional universities can have on protecting Australia’s ecosystems and biodiversity.
“We cannot stand aside and watch as an iconic Australian species is threatened, without doing everything we can to help prevent infection and improve reproductive outcomes. We need to urgently mobilise our scientific efforts to save the koala,” Professor Young said.
UniSC currently tops Queensland in the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking, which assesses universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including the ‘Life on Land’ goal to protect ecosystems and preserve biodiversity.