Breakthrough research in koala disease
Koalas are under even more threats today than ever. Decreasing habitat, injuries and deaths from road accidents and dogs, both wild and domestic, are major threats. However, a major threat is that from two infectious diseases, Chlamydia and the newly found koala retrovirus. Chlamydia is present at alarming levels in many of Australia’s koala populations, particularly in Queensland and NSW (levels as high as 60%). The most serious result of chlamydial infection is infertility, which directly reduces reproduction and the long-term viability of a population. The koala retrovirus is a relatively new threat, causing cancers and making chlamydial disease worse. On top of all of this, climate change is impacting heavily on koalas. The recent bushfires are destroying their precious habitat and food source. In addition though, climate change is making daytime temperatures hotter, leading to heat stress for the animals.
There is some good news on the horizon though. If the threat of chlamydial disease in particular can be reduced, then many populations can hopefully be saved. Certainly, reducing disease can improve breeding of females and can lessen the clearly painful result of this disease. A vaccine for koalas would be a huge tool that can make a big difference.
USC is the world leader in koala chlamydial disease research and the development of a vaccine. In fact, USC microbiologist, Professor Peter Timms has spent the past decade leading a team of collaborators to develop, trial and administer a vaccine to fight this devastating disease. Vaccinated animals have shown good immune responses to the vaccine, and importantly, decreased chlamydia infection levels. Progress is looking very promising.
The USC team will continue to do basic research to better understand Chlamydia, how it causes disease and how a vaccine against Chlamydia (and also koala retrovirus). However, they are also close to the stage of developing the vaccine for wider use in wild koala populations. In 2020 several field trials are planned, in Queensland, NSW (in a population where the infection and disease rates are extremely high) and South Australia (potentially vaccinating koalas affected by the bushfires). To get the vaccine to this next critical stage, and out into the field to be used by the populations most under threat, then more funds are urgently needed.
Help us protect koalas
With the initial success of this research, Professor Timms is now focused on finding the funds to enable the vaccination program to continue and expand.
"We feel compelled to start using this vaccine more broadly especially when we know that it is safe and has some definite positive benefit to the animals," said Professor Timms.
While the University will continue to engage with a variety of possible funders, it is hoped that philanthropic support may also be forthcoming.
"Ideally a significant donation would see this program rolled out across a number of populations, but even funds to vaccinate individual koalas would make a difference," said Professor Timms.
With this in mind, a special fund has been established for those who would like to contribute towards the koala vaccination research project. By making a donation to support the vaccination of a koala, you will help to reduce chlamydia infection levels and improve female reproductive rates in threatened koala populations.
Meet the Researcher
Thanks to our many collaborators, funders and supporters
This very promising progress has only been possible due to the efforts and dedication of the many research staff and students at USC, together with the field workers, koala rescuers, the many collaborators and the financial support of our many partners:
Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, Endeavour Veterinary Ecology, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Dreamworld, Adelaide Koala & Wildlife Hospital, Moreton Bay Regional Council, Friends of the Koala, Koala Action Inc, Koala Genome Consortium, Queensland Department of Environment & Heritage, Queensland Department of Transport & Main Roads, Gold Coast City Council, Redland City Council, Brisbane City Council, ARC Schemes, Morris Animal Foundation, Australian Museum, Queensland Government Schemes, Vaccine & Infectious Diseases Organisation, Canada, Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Diseases, Berlin, University of Sydney, UNSW, University of Adelaide, University of Tasmania, University of Queensland (Gatton Campus), USC, and the generous contributions of individual donors.