Hendra virus research - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Hendra virus research

The need for a faster diagnoses

Some veterinarians are not immediately treating unvaccinated horses due to the risk of Hendra virus infections; instead they wait until the results of Hendra virus tests are returned. Horse owners are concerned that their horses are suffering and not receiving timely treatment.

What is Hendra virus?

Hendra virus is a serious and potentially fatal virus that infects Horses and can be transmitted to humans. The virus is harboured by flying foxes (fruit bats) and there have been multiple outbreaks of the disease every year since 2006.

“First discovered in 1994 at a racing stable in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra, it has caused the death of more than 70 horses across Queensland and New South Wales. It also claimed the lives of 4 out of the 7 humans infected between 1994 and 2014.” (Source: Queensland Government).

Why aren’t horse owners vaccinating?

The current Hendra Virus Vaccine is expensive, has to be given in two doses three weeks apart, with an initial 6-month booster, followed by annual boosters thereafter. It is difficult for horse owners to maintain this regime, and there is controversy regarding potential side-effects of the vaccine. According to the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority the “probable” side-effects being presented after the primary vaccination course include: injection site reaction, oedema, lethargy, pain, anorexia, stiffness, and even cases of horses becoming colic and lame. (Source: Australian Government).

Why are Vets refusing to treat horses?

With 7 infections and 4 deaths of people who were directly examining sick/dead horses, some veterinarians see Hendra virus as an unacceptably high occupational risk. Also, infections are subject to strict government biosecurity measures to prevent spread, and there is difficulty in enacting the safety measures imposed.

“People who have cared for a (Hendra virus) infected horse or veterinary staff who have treated or performed a post-mortem on an infected horse without wearing appropriate personal protective equipment are most at risk. People infected by the Hendra virus have become unwell with a range of symptoms like severe flu and/or encephalitis which is an inflammation of the brain that can progress into convulsions and/or coma and death.” (Source: www.nt.gov.au/health).

Is there another solution?

If veterinarians could quickly determine if Hendra virus is present in a sick horse, they could more easily make decisions on treating horses. A rapid test that quickly detects Hendra virus is critical for preventing undue suffering of horses and reducing treatment dilemmas for horse carers. However, the test would need to be very sensitive – so that lower levels of the virus are not missed.

To get the inside story, contact the researcher:

Associate Professor Joanne Macdonald
Email: jmacdon1@usc.edu.au
Phone: 5456 5944

How USC is tackling this issue

Associate Professor Joanne Macdonald and her research team at the University of the Sunshine Coast, including Joanna Kristoffersen, have theoretically developed a rapid test that can detect Hendra-infected horse samples that is fast, sensitive, and is amendable to field adaptation.

This rapid detection technology is as sensitive as the current test, but operates in less than 10 minutes. It could be used to replace the existing lab test to speed up the centralised testing. Importantly, the USC test would not place any additional burden or risk on the veterinarian beyond those already required to be taken in collecting samples to send to a central laboratory.

How you can support this historical innovation in disease research

There are several steps required before this research can be readily available to veterinarians to use in the field. This is where Associate Professor Macdonald’s research team need your help. We would like to see this rapid test in field trials next year, and released for veterinary use by mid-2019.

It takes funding from all sources – especially from philanthropic individuals who recognise the value of this innovation.

With this in mind, a special fund has been established for those who would like to contribute towards the life-changing research. By making a donation to support rapid diagnostic technology you will assist in how Hendra virus is detected and thus will contribute to the next step in eradication of this deadly disease.

100% of your donation will go towards Rapid Hendra virus diagnostic technology research, and any donations over $2 are tax deductible.

For more information on donating to this project contact Kate Evans, Senior Development Manager, USC Development Office.

Table 1: Benefits of the new Rapid Hendra test compared to real-time PCR tests.
  New Rapid Hendra test Current test
Speed < 15 minutes ~ 2.5 hours
Location Potential for field/clinic use Specialised laboratory
Sample handling Can be processed immediately Shipped to central laboratory (hours/days)
Readout View immediately by eye Requires expensive equipment
Simplicity Easy to operate Requires trained personnel
Sensitivity Highly sensitive Highly sensitive

Table 2: Example of the Hendra Rapid diagnostic technology research and timelines.
  Work required Timeline if funded
Research and development Assay optimisations and testing on incoming Hendra samples in Brisbane 4 months
Feasibility trial Mock trials at vet clinics to test usability 2 months
Preliminary approvals Getting the go-ahead from regulatory authorities for field trails 4 months
Prospective studies Ethics approved field validations 6 months
Release Release first test kits for veterinary use mid-2019