In many parts of Australia, the situation for koalas is bleak. They are categorised in Queensland and New South Wales as vulnerable; impacted by decreasing habitat, road accidents, and ravaged by wild and domestic dog attacks. More recently, the devastating 2020 bushfires burnt seventeen million hectares of land, including more than one third of the national parks in New South Wales. These fires were conservatively estimated to have destroyed more than one billion animals, with koalas being listed amongst the highest priority species to have been affected.
While important work is being undertaken to protect koalas and their habitats, it may all be in vain if immediate action is not taken to address the devastating effects of chlamydial infections. This sexually transmitted disease poses a major threat to koalas by making infected animals weak, often in pain, infertile and potentially blind.
Among Queensland and New South Wales koala populations, infection rates are estimated to be as high as 60% in some populations. If left unchecked, chlamydia, separate and apart from other dangers that koalas are facing, could be the final deciding factor in their survival.
There is hope on the horizon.
USC microbiologist, Professor Peter Timms has spent the past decade investigating the impact of chlamydia in koalas and searching for ways to fight the disease. On the back of his work related to sequencing the koala genome, Professor Timms built a team of collaborators who have developed, trialled and administered a koala chlamydia vaccine. Over the last seven years, eight trials have been completed with more than 250 koalas having been vaccinated. The vaccine has been shown to be completely safe with koalas in the trials having exhibited a good immune response. Most importantly, the koalas’ chlamydia infection levels decreased and their protection against clinical disease improved.
This work has created a potential lifeline for koalas and created hope that they could bounce back in their fight against extinction. The USC team are now ready to roll out the vaccine for wider use in wild koala populations and have developed a two-year plan focused on the most at-risk animals.
Professor Peter Timms was interviewed about the vaccine on ABC's Catalyst program.
What has been achieved so far?
- Over ten years, more than $6 million has been invested into USC’s research of chlamydia infections in koalas and associated diseases.
- 8 different trials involving 250 koalas have been conducted
- A safe vaccine has now been successfully developed which provides protection against chlamydia infection
- Outcomes validated by 20 scientific peer-reviewed publications.
What comes next?
The vaccine must be approved as soon as possible so that it can be administered in the areas where koala populations are most threatened. The keys steps towards this are:
- Conduct Phase 2 and 3 vaccine trials ($200K)
- Regulatory approval of the vaccine ($100K)
- Production and distribution of the vaccine ($1.25M)
Who will lead this project?
Professor Peter Timms is an internationally renowned microbiologist with specific expertise in the area of chlamydia. He currently leads a research team of USC staff and post-graduate students working on vaccines and new diagnostics for chlamydial diseases in humans and animals, as well as an improved understanding of chlamydial genomics, cell biology and pathogenicity. He works in a dedicated state-of-the-art laboratory located on the Sunshine Coast and works actively with major wildlife hospitals who care for sick and injured koalas.
What is in place to deliver this project?
- Professor Peter Timms and the USC research team are widely acknowledged as the world leaders in koala chlamydia research and vaccine development.
- USC state-of-the-art biotechnology laboratory facilities
- Long-term collaboration with the leading koala field research team (Endeavour Veterinary Ecology) for state-of-the-art koala field trials
- Long term collaborations with wildlife hospitals for major trials on wild koalas