By Linfa Wang and Nola Wilkinson
Throughout history, infectious diseases have arisen unexpectedly and swept through human populations with catastrophic effects, like the Black Death and syphilis. We still face health threats today from diseases like AIDS, SARS and Hendra – though we don’t yet have a daily disease forecast like this one:
Most emerging infectious diseases come from wild animals which can carry the infection without life-threatening results. But when these diseases infect humans, the consequences can be fatal.
More and more health professionals are recognising that the health of humans and wild and domestic animals is linked, both subtly and inextricably. If the role of rats as disease carriers had been understood in medieval times, plague might not have spread so widely.
Up close and personal: a microscopic view of the Hendra virus in bat cells.
In recent times transmission of diseases from animals to humans has had devastating effects, such as the twentieth century pandemics caused by HIV (which came from African chimpanzees) and influenza (Spanish flu is likely to have travelled from birds to humans). Recently, our research team found that bats are a natural reservoir for lethal viruses including Hendra, Ebola and SARS.
We’re addressing these emerging threats to human health in our One Health research initiative. By looking at how viruses interact with their human and animal hosts, we’re developing tools for the diagnosis, surveillance and prevention of these diseases. Our research is focused on the development of new vaccines, anti-viral therapeutics and disease-resistant animals.
For instance, in 2012 we launched the Equivac vaccine, which protects horses from infection and thus prevents transmission of Hendra virus from horses to humans. Vaccines can block the transmission of infection, regardless of whether humans or animals are vaccinated.
Linfa Wang and his team are helping to prevent the spread of infectious disease between animals and humans.
We’re also working on potential therapeutic agents like monoclonal antibodies which are administered after infection, as well as anti-viral drugs which can either block entry of the virus to the cell and prevent the virus from replicating or prevent its maturation and release from infected cells.
These developments can help break the chain of virus transmission and limit the impact of new diseases in our closely interconnected and highly mobile world.
Learn more about our work in animal health.