New laboratory sheds light on diseases that can cause a catastrophe

IT IS a worst-case scenario for the state: two different disease emergencies, affecting plants and animals, simultaneously.

The example of a bird flu outbreak threatening the poultry industry and a devastating fungal disease, Karnal bunt, putting the wheat crop at risk, springs immediately to mind for the director of biosecurity research at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Deb Hailstones.

In the past, government scientists at Menangle on Sydney's outskirts had only a small, high-security laboratory in which to work on these kinds of serious pathogens, which would not have been able to accommodate such a double disaster.

The launch today of a $57 million high-tech upgrade at the Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute changes that.

''With this new facility, we could handle both concurrently,'' Dr Hailstones said.

The highest level containment wing, due to start operation soon, is a scientific Fort Knox.

It is maintained at a lower air pressure than outside, with a sophisticated filtration system to prevent viruses, bacteria and other microbes escaping. Waste material is incinerated before removal.

People entering and leaving the secure laboratories have to pass through three small rooms, including a shower.

Inside, there is enough space to study diseased animals, such as chickens or calves in one area, and diseased plants in another.

Samples sent to the labs will be zapped with UV light in special entrance shutes to prevent contaminants on the packages from coming in.

On completion of an investigation, the laboratories will be gassed to kill any remaining organisms.

There is also an inner sanctum - a room with the highest level of biocontainment - where animal and human pathogens that could be misused for bioterrorism, such as anthrax bacteria, could be studied. The Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, said the state-of-the-art facility would help safeguard the states' $9 billion primary industry sector from animal, plant and aquatic pests for decades.

''The institute will have the only diagnostic and research facilities of its type dedicated specifically to primary industries in Australia,'' she said.

Dr Hailstones said the facility's scientists also had a range of new technologies and equipment that would speed up the testing and diagnosis of exotic, emerging and endemic diseases.

They can study animal diseases such as swine influenza, equine influenza, foot and mouth disease, bluetongue, West Nile and Kunjin.

A major research project on the deadly Hendra virus, and how it is transmitted from flying foxes to horses, is under way.

Plant diseases such as citrus canker, myrtle rust and fire blight are also under the microscope.

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