Latest US technology helps stop spread of equine virus

Managing Australia’s first outbreak of equine influenza has been aided by use of some of the most advanced technology in any laboratory in Australia.

From the start of the outbreak, the virology laboratory at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute (EMAI) at Camden was able to test more than 600 samples a day, delivering results in record time to the NSW Chief Veterinary Officer.

Laboratory leader, Dr Peter Kirkland, sought to introduce high throughput capabilities for EMAI after being exposed to technology using magnetic beads to purify DNA samples at an international virology conference.

As a result, new real time PCR and robotic handling equipment costing more than $200,000 was installed in the laboratory and two senior technical officers were trained overseas.

"I can’t emphasise just how important this overseas experience has been in fast tracking this technology in Australia and in providing my technicians with the confidence in their ability to match the world’s best," Dr Kirkland said.

"At that time, the immediate trigger was concerns about avian influenza. The equine influenza outbreak has enabled us to test out this new capacity.

"The turnaround rate we have achieved of 600 samples a day is three to four time the number of samples processed a day in 1999, when Newcastle Disease broke out in poultry farms in Mangrove Mountain," he said.

Dr Kirkland said that "without the international exposure to the latest US equipment it is highly likely that NSW would not have developed its current outstanding response capability."

He said the management decisions that were immediately taken meant the spread of the virus was similar to that of a fire burning at the edges of a contained area.

Dr Kirkland said that although many thousands of horses were infected and a large number of properties are involved, rapid testing has played a very significant role in helping to reduce the spread of the virus.