Tests for the deadly Hendra virus, most often found in horses but transmissible to humans, can be quicker than ever thanks to a new diagnostic point-of-care testing kit that can detect the pathogen in less than an hour, according to its developers at the University of Queensland (UQ).
Hendra was first detected in 1994, in the Brisbane suburb of Hendra, when a few of champion racehorse trainer Vic Rail’s horses fell sick. Just two weeks later, Rail and 13 of his horses were dead, overcome by the mysterious disease. A stablehand also fell sick, but eventually recovered.
It was subsequently discovered that a zoonotic virus, Hendra henipavirus, had jumped from flying foxes to horses, which were eating fruit covered in the saliva of flying foxes that had roosted in the trees above.
Based on 50 known outbreaks, four of which spread to humans, the researchers say the virus has a case fatality rate of 57% among humans, and 79% among horses, though it’s important to note that the number of cases from which scientists can extrapolate mortality is small.
UQ professor of veterinary science Ben Ahern says a rapid point-of-care diagnostic test to detect Hendra infections in horses has been needed for decades.
“Hendra virus kills humans and horses alike,” he says. “The virus spreads to horses from flying foxes, with an infected horse occasionally passing the infection on to humans.”
The new test allows for quick diagnosis on site, reducing the risk of infection and spread.
“Following a heat-treatment step of samples to inactivate the virus, these non-infectious samples are then tested using a handy molecular diagnostics machine – known as a LAMP Genie III – which is about the size of a box of tissues and is battery powered and completely portable,” says Ahern.
“This process gives us results in under one hour, which is incredibly fast when compared to the many days it may take from collection of samples, getting them tested at an external lab and obtaining results.
“Horses aren’t suffering in the interim and humans giving care to them can avoid becoming exposed.”
According to UQ, the kits are now being manufactured and, pending final approval from the Queensland Chief Veterinary Officer, will be available for veterinarians to purchase and use.
“Due to the cost and technical training required, these tests will likely be performed by veterinarians or large equestrian bodies with veterinarian assistance,” says Ahern.
“However, with the mobile capacity of this testing system, they can go directly to a farm to diagnose a suspected case, expanding treatment options for horses.”
Annelies McGaw, research manager at AgriFutures Australia (a key partner involved in funding the development of the kits), says the project will be important to safeguard horse and human health.
“This research has resulted in timely and tangible solutions for the thousands of people working in horse-related industries across the country, and we’re thrilled to see these tests becoming a reality,” she says.
“We’re extremely proud of the research and development we get to work on, not just within the thoroughbred horse industry, but across the Australian agricultural landscape.”
Amalyah Hart is a science journalist based in Melbourne.
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