Koala chlamydia vaccine program secures funding, but full eradication remains unlikely – ABC

By October 28, 2020 January 14th, 2021 Archive

ABC Gold Coast  / By Dominic Cansdale

Posted Thursday 15 October 2020 at 8:30am, updated Thursday 15 October 2020 at 8:43am

Once it has been rehabilitated following a car strike, this koala will be injected with a test chlamydia vaccine.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

A research program that has been developing a chlamydia vaccine for koalas in south-east Queensland has secured $480,000 in funding over the next five years, as researchers warn the deadly disease has been spreading further south.

Key points:

  • Between 50 to 60 koalas are expected to be vaccinated for chlamydia every year at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital
  • If untreated, the disease reduces reproductive rates among infected koalas prior to causing their death
  • But the trial vaccine’s developer says there’s little commercial interest in it, making it dependent on grants and philanthropy

The potential vaccine, which has been in development since 2007, will be injected into every koala treated at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, before their release back into the ‘heavily infected’ local wild populations.

Currumbin Wildlife Hospital’s Michael Pyne said of the 600 koalas admitted last year about 60 per cent were sick with chlamydia.

“The cost of treating just a simple chlamydial case is about $7,000, and for the complex ones it’s way more than that,” Dr Pyne said.

“Sadly, some of those koalas come in and they’re beyond treatment — the infection has got into their kidneys, they’re in renal failure, and there’s nothing we can do to save them.

“So, to be starting to prevent chlamydia in the first place is a huge step forward.”

While the loss of habitat, drought and car strike remain major threats to the vulnerable species, Dr Pyne said the “endemic” disease is “creeping further south year after year”.

Management possible, not eradication

Recent estimates suggest there are around 50,000 koalas in south-east Queensland — a reduction of 80 per cent over the past two decades.

Chlamydia, along with habitat loss and climate change, are major threats to koalas.(ABC Gold Coast: Damien Larkins)

Dr Pyne said the vaccine’s effectiveness was still being assessed, with the five-year program to provide more data.

“It’s proven to produce a good antibody response. It’s not proven to prevent at this point,” he said.

“Much of this vaccinating and releasing back out into the wild, where there’s a lot of chlamydia, will give us those answers.”

QUT’s Professor of Immunology Ken Beagley, who developed the vaccine, said data gathered so far pointed to long-term success.

“We’ve seen animals that are eight or nine years post-vaccination that still have good antibody responses and good cell-mediated immunity.”

Mayor Tom Tate, Professor Ken Beagley and Dr Michael Pyne at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

“The evidence is that they should not acquire chlamydia, or they should be able to control the infection quickly, so it doesn’t cause permanent damage,” he said.

Professor Beagley said modelling suggested that “if we reduce the disease by 50 to 60 per cent, we should start to see an increase in reproductive success”.

But Dr Pyne said while they aimed to vaccinate 10 per cent of the breeding population in Currumbin and Elanora, “realistically I don’t think we’re ever wiping out chlamydial disease”.

Economic constraints make donations vital

Professor Ken Beagley said it cost at least $60,000 a year to produce the vaccine, which is administered in two separate injections 30 days apart.

He said the development of an implant was underway as an alternative to the second injection, so “there won’t be any need to capture the animal again or hold it for 30 days”.

Up to 60 koalas are expected to be vaccinated at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital each year.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

But Professor Beagley said there were economic limitations because “we can’t get a company to make them [vaccines] because there’s no real market”.

“So, all the work we’ve done is based on grants and philanthropy,” he said.

Dr Pyne said, due to the significant cost of formally registering the vaccine, “it will always have to be used under the banner of a research project”.

$10 million buy up of koala habitat underway

The City of Gold Coast provided $250,000 to the vaccination program, with the remaining funding provided by Neumann Development, WildArk and Rotary.

It comes a month after council unanimously voted to spend up to $10.8 million to compulsory acquire 407 hectares of land at Yawalpah Road in Pimpama, as part of its koala conservation efforts.

“We’re not stopping the city’s investment,” Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate said.

“That one pass will happen, it will be a wonderful corridor for our koalas, and it’s huge.”

Objections to the acquisition from the site’s private owners were overruled by the council’s Director Organisational Services in August.