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Virus Hunters -

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NARRATION

This is the movie 'Contagion'. A flu pandemic sweeps the world, kills hundreds of millions of us.
Civilisation falls apart. It's a Hollywood doomsday scenario - what would a scientist make of it?

Professor Martyn Jeggo

It's very realistic, yeah genuinely scientifically sound.

Dr Jenny McKimm-Breschkin

Respiratory spread viruses are the worst nightmare.

Professor Martyn Jeggo

In some ways, it's a, it's a documentary. It's actually documenting, 'Guys, this is around the
corner.'

NARRATION

After all, we have had terrible pandemics before.

Dr Jenny McKimm-Breschkin

I think the most lethal virus that we all still talk about is the 1918 flu, and that killed,
estimates are round about thirty to a hundred million people.

NARRATION

And it could happen again.

Dr Graham Phillips

It's not a matter of if there could be another deadly pandemic, it's a matter of when. And these
guys are on the front line of preventing it.

NARRATION

We're inside CSIRO's new, very high security laboratory. We'll tour it shortly, but first, check
out the lucky escape we had in 2003. How bad was the SARS outbreak?

Professor Martyn Jeggo

Oh devastating. It was devastating for two reasons, I think. One was the highly infectious nature
of it. It spread between people and people in a way we'd never seen before. Secondly, the way it
went round the world, so it came out of China, into Hong Kong, across to Canada and elsewhere. And
it moved really, really quickly. So we had a highly infectious virus that spread round the world
quickly, that's the scary stuff.

NARRATION

What saved us from pandemic doomsday is, while contagious, SARS is not that deadly. Not so for the
Hendra virus. Caught from horses, sixty per cent of people die. Fortunately it's not that
contagious. But ...

Professor Martyn Jeggo

If we'd had the infectivity of that SARS virus with the lethality of a, of a virus such as Hendra,
the world would have been in serious trouble. That's what the film 'Contagion' is depicting, and
that is not unrealistic.

Actor "Contagion"

Is there any way someone could weaponise the bird flu, is that what we're looking at?

Actor "Contagion"

Someone doesn't have to weaponise the bird flu. The birds are doing it.

NARRATION

The film depicts a horrible disaster.

Professor Martyn Jeggo

As often happens with these viruses, it's usually a very quick death. You can imagine that your
whole social structure is very quickly going to become in trouble, from not having a taxi driver to
not having doctors, to not having banking officials so you can't move your money around.

Dr Jenny McKimm-Breschkin

You're going to have to shut down industry, schools, even hospitals because you won't have staff.
You can't get a vaccine together, because it generally takes about six to eight months to get a
vaccine ready. I don't think anyone can even envision what sort of impact that would have.

NARRATION

The only treatment would be the anti-viral drugs, Relenza and Tamiflu, which kill most flu viruses.
But they must be taken in the first two days, and much of the world won't have access to them.

Dr Jenny McKimm-Breschkin

There's almost nothing you can actually do to avoid the high death rate that you would see.

Dr Graham Phillips

Inadvertently, we're setting ourselves up for perfect pandemic conditions. We're living in
increasingly dense urban environments, we're packing people in. So if someone does pick up some
nasty, highly contagious bug, very quickly it spreads to a lot of other people.

NARRATION

Unlike 1918, viruses now spread rapidly, jumping to the other side of the world in just hours.

Professor Martyn Jeggo

That's what happened with SARS. It wasn't SARS that went round the world, it was us travelling with
the SARS virus, moving round the world.

NARRATION

Animals are also being packed in, providing ideal breeding grounds for viruses.

Professor Martyn Jeggo

Seventy-five per cent of new infectious diseases in man come from animals.

Dr Graham Phillips

And it's not just farm animals, we're changing natural ecosystems too. That's how Hendra emerged,
which had been harmlessly in bats. Because we're altering the natural environment bats are moving
into urban areas. This colony's been here in East Geelong since about 2003. Now the problem is,
when the bats change location,they come into contact with different animals.

NARRATION

It could be via feed. Bats excrete on it, horses eat it, and pick up Hendra. Then it jumps to
people. It's a typical path for emerging viruses.

Professor Martyn Jeggo

We know essentially they come from wildlife, into our livestock and then into man. We've mapped
that route, we know that happens.

NARRATION

That's why CSIRO's animal health laboratory has been refurbished with its new high-security
facility.

Professor Martyn Jeggo

This is one of the world's most advanced high containment labs, so we've got here systems to work
safely with these infectious agents.

Dr Graham Phillips

Well from this point on, nothing can go inside, not even our camera gear. So from now on we have to
shoot everything on this little waterproof mini-cam, because it can be completely washed in
disinfectant on the way out. Well here we go.

NARRATION

Clothes don't go in or out. They must stay in the locker. You have a strictly timed shower on exit
and wear their clothes on the inside. There's an eerie silence in here, broken only by the hiss of
the door's airlocks. And we're still not in the most secure part of the lab. To go there, it's a
fully sealed space suit, complete with its own air supply. And on exit, and eight minute chemical
shower in the suit.

Once in the inner sanctum, scientists can work with the naked viruses, some of the worst nasties in
the world. Hendra, bird flu and Ebola. This lab has a world first - the ability to watch live video
of a virus actually infecting a cell. But which viruses will cause the next pandemic?

Professor Martyn Jeggo

You're asking me to predict the unpredictable. And that's the very nature of this beast, that it is
unpredictable, so I can't actually tell you.

NARRATION

But a prime suspect is bird flu.

Dr Jenny McKimm-Breschkin

At the moment, the bird flu can't spread to humans unless you get a really high dose with direct
contact with the birds. But it doesn't spread from human to human. So if we suddenly got a bird flu
that can spread from human to human, then we would all be terrified. None of us have seen bird flu
before and we don't have immunity to it.

Dr Graham Phillips

Frighteningly, researchers recently mutated the bird flu so that it could do just that, proving
nature may be able to do it as well.

NARRATION

In the lab, animals caught the bug by simply sneezing and coughing. Now the mutated virus wasn't as
deadly as the original bird flu. But the fear is, nature could dream up something that is. If so,
let's hope science can avert a 'Contagion' scenario.

Topics: Health

Reporter: Dr Graham Phillips

Producer: Dr Graham Phillips

Researcher: Roslyn Lawrence

Camera: Ron Ekkel

Peter Healy

Rod Coats

Sound: Graham Fettling

Graeme Cornish

James Fisher

John Peterson

Editor: Toby Trappel

Story Contacts

Professor Martyn Jeggo

Director,

CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory

Dr Jenny McKimm-Breschkin

Chief Research Scientist, Influenza

CSIRO