According to CSIRO’s early success with testing, the Hendra virus vaccine for horses could be available as early as next year. Hendra virus affects horses and is contracted through contact with flying foxes.
Hendra virus was first identified in Brisbane in 1994 after it killed well-known trainer Vic Rail and several of his horses. Since then, 14 horses are known to have contracted the virus, all having died or been put down because of the risk. Seven people have been confirmed with the virus and four of them died. The latest human case killed Rockhampton veterinarian Alister Rodgers in 2009.
According to Australian Veterinary Association president Dr Barry Smyth, the prospect of a vaccine is a massive boost for the industry. “It's great news that the hard work at CSIRO seems to have had some pretty good outcomes and good results…It's come to fruition a lot earlier that we might have anticipated, so I think it's a real big pat on the back for all the people that have been involved,” he said.
CSIRO pathologist Dr Deborah Middleton, based at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory at Geelong in Victoria, will make the announcement about the breakthrough at a veterinary conference in Adelaide.
Dr Middleton said stopping the disease in horses could also be the first step towards a vaccine for people. A US-made treatment involving injection of microbe-fighting antibodies has so far not met expectations she added. She will tell delegates to the Australian Veterinary Association conference that if field trials and registration progress as expected, the vaccine could be available next year.
“It's very good news,” said Queensland veterinarian Tim Annand. In 2009, he attended what would become the 13th and 14th cases of Hendra virus in horses. “It doesn't help us as humans directly, but it means all horses could be required to be vaccinated before we see them,” Dr Annand said.
AVA president Barry Smyth encouraged veterinarians and others who come in close contact with horses to report suspected cases immediately and continue “precautions that reduce the risk of spreading the virus”. According to Dr Annand, that means keeping horses away from trees where flying foxes are feeding.
The vaccine is a collaborative effort between Dr Middleton's AAHL group and one led by Christopher Broder of the US government's Uniformed Services University. Funding came from the Queensland and federal governments. The scientists built on work at AAHL, revealing that the virus, named for the Brisbane suburb in which it was first observed, is part of a new sub-group, Henipavirus, within the family Paramyxoviridae.
Using that information, the team reported in the July 2008 issue of the journal Vaccine that a so-called recombinante vaccine they'd developed produced an immune response in cats exposed to the closely related Nipah virus, also contracted from flying foxes.
In 2009, the international group reported they were able to demonstrate that the vaccine's immune building capacity protected animals from contracting the Nipah virus.