The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has opened one of the world’s most advanced biosecurity areas.
“Level four” – the new $5 million laboratory and opened by Science Minister Kim Carr – will allow scientists to work with live cells of killer bugs, including the ebola, SARS, nipah and hendra viruses.
Scientists will collaborate with experts from throughout the world through online hook-ups and visits.
The Geelong laboratory is already renowned in the science world as a result of Dr Linfa Wang’s breakthrough in finding a link between bats and the SARS virus.
Bats will form a major part of experiments at the lab, which also has 120 monkeys used for HIV research.
The laboratory was mentioned in the Hollywood blockbuster Contagion, starring Kate Winslet and Matt Damon.
In the film, scientists receive a sample from Geelong that helps them fight a flu-like epidemic that came from a bat infecting a pig.
Prof Jeggo said vigilance against diseases was necessary – another SARS-like virus was around the corner.
“We do have these new and emerging viruses,” Prof Jeggo said.
“And we don’t know where they are going to come from.
“If you have had the pleasure of seeing the film Contagion … that’s what we’re dealing with here.
“That is the likely scenario.
“It’s not so much those four (hendra, ebola, SARS and nipah); it’s probably one we don’t know about.”
Students from universities throughout Australia also will be encouraged to work at the laboratory as one of the conditions of the grant.
The opening comes as The Department of Homeland Security in the US announced it wants to work with the CSIRO to develop vaccines against bio-terror threats, which are seen as more critical than nuclear warfare.
Prof Jeggo said the Americans were interested in using live-cell imaging technology.
“The Department of Homeland Security sent us a letter asking about creating partnerships,” he said.
“They want to develop anti-biological warfare options, which could include vaccines, or better equipment such as face masks for their troops, particularly after the anthrax scare.”