A vaccine developed by Queensland scientists could bring koalas back from the brink, explains Peter Timms.
Koalas are disappearing fast from some parts of Australia. In south east Queensland along the so-called Koala Coast, south of Brisbane, koala numbers have fallen from 20,000 two decades ago to just 2,000 today, according to Professor Peter Timms.
But Timms, Professor of Microbiology at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology, isn’t standing idly by.
He has his sights set on saving koalas from chlamydia, a highly infectious bacterial disease which scars the eyes and genital tract so badly it can make animals sterile or blind and lead to a slow painful death.
“If one of my kids had that disease and looked like that, I wouldn’t let it do its thing. It’s not a nice disease,” says Timms.
No-one knows why so many koalas have chlamydia. It may have been introduced from sheep brought by the first European settlers or it might always have been here, but one thing is certain: the disease is spreading fast.
Chlamydia is transmitted during birth, through mating and possibly through fighting, so it spreads like wildfire through koala populations.
Experts say chlamydia is the final nail in the coffin for some koala populations, already under immense pressure from loss of habitat, road traffic and dog attacks.
So Timms is understandably excited about the recent success of trials to test a new vaccine to protect koalas from chlamydia.
The first trials, done on animals living in koala sanctuaries, show they start to make a strong immune response to the vaccine within 60 days. Even sick individuals did not have an adverse reaction, suggesting the vaccine is safe to use.
“We’ve tested some more than a year later and they still have a good immune response, so that’s very promising.”
But the real test will come in April this year, when Timms’ research team will trial the drug in a wild population of koalas on the Gold Coast. About 30-40 per cent of this population is already infected, so it’s an ideal target for testing out how well the vaccine really works.
“We’re going to take a small group (of infected koalas), vaccinate half of them and leave half as a control, and then release them back into the wild.
“They’ll all have radio collars so we can keep track of them in the field.”
If this trial is a success, what then? Vaccinate all wild koalas?
“That’s going to be difficult to do,” he says.
But Timms has another plan: to tackle the disease by first vaccinating any koala which has been brought into a koala hospital for any kind of treatment.
“There are 3000 koalas brought into rescue centres each year in Queensland alone,” he explains.
“The big advantage is they are already coming into care, already being looked at by a vet … and then they are released again…. for me it’s an easy way to distribute the vaccine to a significant group of koalas.”
“If that shows promise, then I’ll spend more time thinking about how to catch the last koala in the last tree.
“Let me catch the first one first.”
Peter Timms is Professor of Microbiology at the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology. In 1998 he was awarded the Australian Society for Microbiology Frank Fenner Award for major contributions to the discipline of microbiology. Professor Timms was interviewed by Abbie Thomas.