Behind the airtight walls and doors of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL), a group of scientists is working away on infectious diseases.
Everyday they undress, walk naked through an airlocked room to a change room on the other side. There, a fresh set of clothes is waiting for them.
On the return journey they have to shower, wash their hair, and cannot take out anything that entered the secure area.
It is all to stop the infectious diseases being studied from making their way to the outside world.
The scientists at the Geelong complex say time moves slowly — just moving between rooms can take 20 minutes.
One of the key research projects here is on the deadly pig disease African swine fever (ASF), a virus that has already wiped out a quarter of the world’s pig population.
The disease is yet to reach Australia but, as it spreads rapidly through Asia, fears are growing that the first detection will not be far away.
Director of the Australian Animal Health Authority Trevor Drew has spent much of his career researching ASF.
“I think that now the situation in Asia is such that we will not be able to control African swine fever until there’s a vaccine available.”
But Dr Drew says a vaccine could be at least five years away.
In these secure labs, researchers hope to be the ones to make the breakthrough.
CSIRO director David Williams says scientists have been working on a vaccine for 60 years, but because the virus is so large and complex it is no easy task.
“It’s been very difficult to develop a vaccine, largely because of the properties of the virus and the way in which it infects pigs,” he said.
Preparing for the worst
Until a vaccine is developed, Australian scientists and authorities are preparing for the worst.
Dr Drew will be running an outbreak simulation with other authorities at the end of the month, to find out just how prepared the country is.
“I think that there is still some work to do. For the large industrial pig production areas I think we are very prepared,” he said.
“I have some concerns about small-scale farmers, backyard farmers, who may not be so aware of the disease and there may be some weaknesses in the spread of the disease.”
Dr Williams says, without a vaccine, diagnosing outbreaks and responding quickly will be key to stopping the spread of the virus.
“It means we need to use traditional measures of disease control and that means culling infected pig populations on farms, burying the pigs or disposing of the pigs in a safe way, and then disinfecting the farms,” he said.
Dr Drew says the disease could spread through Australia’s large feral pig population, with an estimated 25 million feral pigs spread across nearly half the country.
“Nobody knows exactly how many there are, but if they were to become infected it is almost certain that the disease would spread very rapidly … which would make it extremely difficult to control,” he said.
Scientists are concerned about ticks.
In other parts of the world, such as Africa, ASF is known to be carried by ticks and researchers at AAHL are testing Australian ticks to find out if they could also be potential carriers of the virus.
“In Australia we have similar species, and research that we’ve recently commenced here is to try and understand what potential role Australian soft ticks could have in acting as a reservoir [host],” Dr Drew said.
“Firstly, can these Australian species of ticks become infected with a virus? And we can do that in the lab in the high containment laboratory.”
The most likely way ASF could enter Australia is through infected pork products that are then fed to pigs, with the Federal Government increasing biosecurity in recent months.
Pork products that have been seized at international airports or mail centres are sent to this laboratory for testing.
The most recent testing found nearly half the products seized contained ASF virus fragments, up from just 11 per cent last year.
“We saw a marked increase in positive pork products and we think that reflects the amount of virus that’s replicating in pigs in South-East Asia and China,” Dr Williams said.
“That highlights the risk of African swine fever that may get into the country and make its way into pig feed.”
As well as trying to prevent the spread of ASF, this lab is also involved in capacity building in South-East Asia.
This week scientists from across the region, including Indonesian virologist Sri Handayani Irianingsih, are receiving training from top biosafety experts.
“We are preparing for an outbreak of African swine fever by having testing ready to diagnose the disease,” Dr Irianingsih said.
Dr Irianingsih said the collaboration between Australia and South-East Asia was vital.
“I think it’s important to collaborate in this time and in the future, to help the animal health between Indonesia and Australia.”