Global interest in koala vaccine leads to funding

University of the Sunshine Coast

Global interest in a vaccine that can treat chlamydia in koalas has resulted in funding that will help University of the Sunshine Coast scientists with the next phase of development.

Ceva Wildlife Research Fund, a separate entity launched by Ceva Santé Animale, a global animal health company that spans more than 110 countries, has committed $175,000 to support key stages of further developing the vaccine which aims to protect Australia's iconic, and now endangered, species.

Media opportunity: Wednesday 15 March, 10.30am. Details below including interview footage.

UniSC Professor of Microbiology Peter Timms said the vaccine that he and his team have developed had shown great results in treating koalas in captivity and wildlife hospitals, and they now needed to develop an industry-grade registered version to better supply wildlife hospitals and koalas in the wild.

"We are approaching the final stages of vaccine development, which means submitting the product for registration, obtaining regulator approval and getting it manufactured ready for wider use," said Professor Timms from UniSC's Centre for Bioinnovation, who was named a Queensland Great in 2022 for his work in koala research.

"We have worked very hard over more than 10 years to get to this point, and this funding marks the start of the next large, but worthwhile, phase of work. And we have only come this far thanks to funding from many sources including Government, various Australian funding bodies, partners, the university and many individual donors."

"It's exciting to see this all come to fruition and know that we can really help these animals and international support such as this is very gratifying," he said.

The Federal Government listed koalas as an endangered species in February 2022 due to habitat loss.

Chlamydia affects up to 50 percent in many of the remaining koala populations, causing blindness, infertility and sometimes death in koalas, consequently hampering population stability and survival.

"Antibiotics cannot be the answer because they destroy the koala's gut microbiome, which the animal depends on to digest the eucalypt leaves," Professor Timms said.

Instead, the vaccine is intended to provide three levels of protection: reduced infection levels circulating in the population, reduced progression to clinical disease, and even reversal of existing disease in some cases.

Professor Timms said the financial support from the Ceva Wildlife Research Fund would help develop a large field trial to evaluate the vaccine in wild koalas and enable further research into the immune basis of protection in vaccinated koalas.

"In addition, the Ceva Wildlife Research Fund will support a trial to compare and evaluate a high-quality version of the vaccine produced by an Australian vaccine manufacturer because, until now, we have been using a research version of the vaccine. Several trials will be needed to fully evaluate this industry version," he said.

"Ceva Santé Animale has significant experience in developing and producing animal therapeutics, including vaccines for animals. It's wonderful to see that we have international support from such a large and successful animal health company through its endowment fund."

Professor Timms said further funding would still be required to complete this key development phase, however there had been enormous interest and support, including from all levels of Australian government.

"This is great because koalas need all the support they can get," he said.

Ceva Wildlife Research Fund Director, Dr Pierre-Marie Borne said they were proud to support a project to protect koalas, which were an "emblem of biodiversity".

"Professor Timms and his team, together with all the local actors, have taken huge steps and we thank them for their long-term efforts," he said.

UniSC Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Professor Ross Young said that a koala vaccine is a commitment to addressing this vital issue for Australia.

"As the vaccine does not have a commercial market, the research team has relied on grant funding and generous donations to save the koala from extinction. The contribution from Ceva Wildlife Research Fund is timely support and is welcomed," Professor Young said.

"We cannot stand aside and watch as an iconic Australian species is threatened, without doing everything we can to help prevent infection and improve reproductive outcomes. We need to urgently mobilise our scientific efforts to save the koala," Professor Young said.

"We aren't just developing a vaccine at UniSC, we're also working with other organisations to monitor and support the health of Australia's wildlife, and we are guiding Australia's next generation of scientists and staff who will be entrusted to protect our most vulnerable species before it's too late."

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