Release the bats! Standing between us and an outbreak
In recent months a glance upward at dusk has revealed the chaos of a giant flock of bats blackening the sky. Over the summer the bat population in Geelong’s Eastern Park has skyrocketed.
They swoop low with intense chirps and descend on whatever trees are offering their fruits. At the peak of its bounty our neighbour’s apple tree would accommodate forty at a time. Offending apple cores littering the garden attested to a busy night of consumption.
The streets of East Geelong have been dotted with the macabre site of errant dead bats hanging from above: the victims of an encounter with power lines.
As the arrival of the bats in Geelong has become a local water cooler topic, next door to Eastern Park is an institution taking a far more serious interest in bats.
For the virologists at the CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) it is all about bats.
Among the many deadly diseases which are handled at AAHL are SARS, rabies, and the Hendra virus which tragically killed horse trainer Vic Rail back in 1994. All have their roots in bats.
Why bats, in particular, seem to cook up these viruses has AAHL scientists intrigued. And why is it that bats appear totally unaffected by the viruses? The answer to this is pregnant with possibility.
Bats may be the issue of the day but they are just part of the work undertaken by a facility which represents the nation’s primary weapon against exotic and emerging animal diseases.
AAHL is Australia’s most secure facility where diseases can be safely studied and understood and responses developed to manage some of the deadliest threats of our time.
It has helped keep us free of foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease, scrapie and many fish diseases that could threaten the nation’s economic health.
The language used to describe the science carried out at AAHL is military: early response, frontline, rapid detection tools, disease countermeasures.
AAHL is to bio-security what our defence force is to national security.
Most of the laboratories at AAHL exist at Physical Containment Level 3 (PC3). This means there are safeguards in place – including air handling systems and sewage treatments – to assist in minimising the risk of infection to individuals, the community and the environment from dangerous viruses. The objective of this level is to make sure that none of the material being handled can leave the facility: on clothes, or hair or rubbish.
To ensure this containment, the entire PC3 zone is air tight. There is not so much as a gap in the wires to allow an inadvertent ant to get inside.
Clothes have to be left on the outside. The threshold is traversed naked. And on arrival in the change rooms at the entrance of the PC3 zone are white overalls and undies, with coloured polo shirts and sneakers. The PC3 labs are to fashion what spam and sauce sandwiches are to cuisine.
Inside there is a canteen, a gym, the day’s newspapers and a snooker table. But if it cannot be incinerated then it is destined never to leave.
On exiting the PC3 zone a shower lasting at least three minutes is required in which hair must be washed. If you attempt to leave before your shower has run the duration then the door simply won’t open.
Deep inside AAHL is a PC4 laboratory: the highest security level there is. This is where scientists work on viruses which are deadly to humans and have no known cure. The scientists wear sealed suits with their own oxygen supply. When they leave the lab they are required to have a chemical shower and then a normal shower and that is just to get back inside the world of PC3.
This year AAHL celebrated its 25th birthday and on the very day of its birthday I had the great privilege of touring the facility.
It is indeed impressive: more than 2000 pre-cast concrete wall panels, over 500 air-tight doors, 62 air-handling systems and 1000 high-efficiency air filters. To rebuild it today would cost $650million, more than four times the money spent on construction in the early 1980s.
In recent years the Australian Government has spent $55million on AAHL ensuring that it remains the best bio-secure facility in the world.
The foresight to construct this facility 25 years ago to such high standards has given us a state of the art centre which the rest of world can only dream of replicating in the current global economic environment.
The 300 people who work at AAHL may not wear army fatigues, but as they handle the deadliest diseases known to humanity, each and every day, the work they do is indeed heroic, and just as fundamental to defending our country.
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