New Hendra virus variant found in southern, western Aus
CSIRO scientists have confirmed that Hendra virus can be found across a broad region of Australia, after uncovering a previously unidentified type of the virus in flying foxes in the southern and western states.
A paper detailing the finding was published this week in Virology Journal, just days after the new genetic type (Hendra virus Genotype 2, or HeV-g2) was detected in a horse near Newcastle, the most southern case of Hendra yet recorded.
Hendra virus can be transmitted from flying foxes to horses, and from horses to people. Previous studies had found the virus in black and spectacled flying foxes in Queensland and parts of NSW; however, the latest study details how the new genetic type of Hendra was found in grey-headed flying foxes in Victoria and South Australia from 2013–2021, and in the little red flying fox in Western Australia in 2015. By piecing together the new virus’s genome from several flying fox samples, scientists discovered that it was a new type of Hendra virus, confirming that the virus can be found in all four species of flying foxes and in a broad geographic range of Australia.
“This finding really underscores the importance of research into flying foxes — it’s crucial to helping us understand and protect Australians against the viruses they can carry,” said CSIRO scientist Dr Kim Halpin. He added that spillover of the disease from flying foxes to horses has only been reported in Queensland and NSW, but added that “because Hendra virus Genotype 2 is so genetically similar to the original Hendra virus, there is a potential risk to horses wherever flying foxes are found in Australia”.
Dr Kim Halpin noted that Hendra virus has never been reported to spread directly from flying foxes to humans, and that the new genetic type is expected to behave the same way. Furthermore, given the similarities to the original strain of Hendra virus, he expects the existing Hendra virus vaccine for horses to work against this variant.
Dr Steve Dennis, President of Equine Veterinarians Australia, said the findings are a reminder there’s a risk of Hendra virus wherever there are flying foxes and horses.
“Owners and any people who interact with horses can reduce the risk of infection from Hendra virus by vaccination of horses, wearing appropriate personal protection equipment, removing feed and water from underneath trees frequented by flying foxes, moving horses out of paddocks when trees attractive to flying foxes are flowering, and seeking early veterinary attention for sick horses,” he said.
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