Research scientist Glenn Marsh working at CSIRO'™s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong. Research scientist Glenn Marsh working at CSIRO'™s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong. Photo: Supplied
Scientists at CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong are playing their part in a global effort to tame the highly infectious Ebola virus wreaking havoc in west Africa.
Since the first live sample of the Ebola virus arrived in Australia last September, CSIRO researchers have been working in a high-security laboratory, one of only a few worldwide where scientists can work with live samples of the most deadly viruses, including Ebola, SARS and Nipah.
‘’Working with Ebola is a fairly new area for us,’’ research scientist Glenn Marsh said.
The first step is to identify a suitable animal species in which to study the virus. This means finding an animal that reacts to Ebola in a similar way to humans – expressing the same incubation period, symptoms, disease progression and outcome.

While internationally primates are the most common animal used to study Ebola, Dr Marsh said the Geelong team had started with pigs. And ferrets, which have a good track record with human respiratory diseases such as influenza, will soon follow.
‘’No one has ever put Ebola into a ferret, so we don’t know what will happen,’’ he said. ‘’But we will be looking for similar symptoms in the ferret to what you would see in humans.’’
Curiously fruit bats, where it is believed the virus originated, can carry the Ebola virus without illness.  In humans Ebola has a 90 per cent fatality rate.
Spread by contact with infected body fluids, early symptoms in humans include fever, muscle pain and a headache. These are followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, impaired kidney and liver function and internal and external bleeding.
Considered the worst Ebola outbreak in history, the latest epidemic in west Africa has been predicted to last for several months.
According to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation, which is monitoring the virus’ deadly impact in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, there have been 844 cases, including 518 deaths.
There is no vaccination or treatment for the virus, although several vaccines are being tested.
The Geelong laboratory operates at the highest biosecurity level. Only when behind air-locked doors, can researchers in protective suits filled with oxygen work with ‘’level-four pathogens’’ – the most dangerous viruses because they remain without a vaccine or cure.
The CSIRO lab holds both types of Ebola. The original strain known as Zaire ebolavirus, which was first identified in Africa in 1976, is behind the latest outbreak. A second strain, Reston ebolavirus, was first described in America in 1990.
While the Zaire ebolavirus has a 90 per cent fatality rate in humans, Reston ebolavirus, which emerged from south-east Asia, causes illness but is not fatal.
‘’It would be great to find an animal model that has a similar response to humans, in that one strain causes disease and the other doesn’t,’’ Dr Marsh said.
A live sample of the Zaire ebolavirus arrived from America last September after ‘’a significant amount of paperwork’’, according to Dr Marsh.
Approval was needed from American departments of agriculture, health and defence and from the department of agriculture and health in Australia.
The live American sample, which arrived in a vial packed in dry ice, will allow local researchers to grow fresh samples in cell cultures as needed.