Nation prepares for deadly bat virus

The U.S. is investing in Hendra virus research because of fears it may be used in biological warfare.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

Bird flu, swine flu, anthrax; and now add Hendra--a lethal virus that resides in bat urine and horse spit--to the ever increasing list of barnyard threats.

The U.S. and other countries are investing in Hendra virus research because they fear it may be used in biological warfare, Dr. Peter Reid told horse owners and "bat carers" at the Queensland Horse Council Hendra virus conference last week. And Dr. Reid should know--he was the veterinarian involved in the first known Hendra outbreak, which killed prominent Queensland horse trainer Vic Rail and 14 of his horses in 1994.

Back then, there was speculation of foul play until the Australian Animal Health Laboratory isolated and identified what it said was a new virus unreported anywhere else in the world.

This bug, along with and its even deadlier relative the Nipah virus, is so virulent it's considered a U.S. homeland security threat. There is no effective treatment or vaccine for Hendra or Nipah. (An Ausie-U.S. team recently developed a serum that protects ferrets exposed to the Nipah virus.) Thankfully, it has to date occurred only in Australia. The latter has killed hundreds in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and India, while the former has downed four out of the seven people infected in Queensland, Australia--a 57 percent mortality rate.(PDF)

So far it appears that Hendra is transmitted from bats to horses and from horses to humans. Nipah transfers from bats to pigs and from pigs to humans, but there have also been cases of bat to human and human to human transmissions, according to experts. (Again with the swine?)

Still, although contained for now Down Under, it's one of the top items to justify a new $575 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kansas.

The new facility would replace the Plum Island Animal Disease Center and would be dedicated to the research of "high-consequence biological threats involving zoonotic and foreign animal diseases."

Specifically, the new facility would provide a BSL-4 level space, which affords the protection necessary for researchers to study life-threatening microorganisms like Nipah and Hendra for which there is no known vaccine or therapy.

So, apart from the $575 million tab, is there reason for concern?

Dr. Reid told the Australian Associated Press that with the increased outbreaks in the past four years "it was his gut feeling that the virus was becoming more contagious".

"Bats are quite accessible and in the wrong hands it can pose quite a threat," he said.

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