University of Melbourne Magazine

Ebola: The lab report

  • A laboratory in Parkville is playing a key role in protecting Australia against the world’s deadliest infectious diseases.

    A relative grieves as a Red Cross burial team prepares to move the body of an Ebola victim in Liberia. Picture: Daniel Berehulak - The New York Times.

    A relative grieves as a Red Cross burial team prepares to move the body of an Ebola victim in Liberia. Picture: Daniel Berehulak – The New York Times.

    Dr Mike Catton is chopping vegetables for Sunday dinner when the phone rings. A man in another state has a fever; more disturbingly, he has just returned from Guinea, one of the epicentres of an unfolding Ebola outbreak. Catton ends the call, puts down the knife and begins contacting colleagues. He knows just what to do.

    “It’s like a fire station, we’ve got to be in constant readiness,” says Catton, the head of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL), which is based at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in the heart of Melbourne’s biomedical research community. “The pressure is on us.”

    The laboratory must work fast to identify a virus so hospital staff and health authorities can act rapidly to contain it. In this case, dinner must wait as he arranges for a sample to be shipped to Melbourne.

    Catton and his team play a key role in protecting Australia and the region against some of the world’s most notorious germs. They monitor and test for a range of infectious diseases, such as HIV, influenza and measles, but as the national reference laboratory for viral haemorrhagic fevers, they are especially equipped to handle Ebola, the rare and deadly virus that has alarmed the world.

    “It’s very scary when a disease like Ebola gets into a country with a very fragile health care system that can’t effectively block transmission.”

    The laboratory is Australia’s best resource for containing a disease that has killed nearly 10,000 people in the past year, more than any previous Ebola outbreak. Most of the toll is confined to West Africa, but the nature of the epidemic has sparked doubts about the world’s ability to manage dangerous viruses.

    “Even though Ebola’s been around since 1976,” Catton observes, “it became real for people in 2014.” In the past year, the laboratory has tested 14 specimens for Ebola, all proving negative.

    The disease is relatively difficult to contract. Unlike influenza or measles, which spread through the air, Ebola is contracted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. And they have to be showing symptoms to be contagious. Yet the visceral and dramatic nature of Ebola’s advanced symptoms – bleeding from the eyes, bruising, severe weight loss and organ failure – make it particularly unnerving. The virus’s high fatality rate also contributes to its fearsome reputation. The most recent strain kills about half its victims.

    Senior scientist Dr Julian Druce says staff at the Doherty never stopped watching out for Ebola and had prepared for any new incarnations of the virus.

    “We were always ready for it,” he says. “Ebola is a moving target. There have always been new and emerging strains of Ebola, so you have to keep up.”

    Catton believes the disease poses little risk to people in Australia, which has the resources to prevent a serious outbreak, but he would “think twice” about working face-to-face with Ebola victims on the ground in West Africa.

    “Patients, once they get to vomiting and having diarrhoea – copious amounts of fluid with large amounts of virus – are really dangerous,” he says. “So on the ground, in those countries where those patients are all the time, those health care workers are really in the firing line.

    “I’ve got the utmost respect for those guys, but I’m a backroom boy.”

    He adds: “We’re not about taking risks, we’re not about being cowboys. What we do is actually really safe.”

    Portrait of Dr Mike Catton

    “The pressure is on us,” says Dr Mike Catton, head of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory.

    The Institute’s director, Professor Sharon Lewin, believes the Ebola epidemic highlights a disturbing difference between poor countries and rich ones such as Australia, which have the knowledge and infrastructure to withstand Ebola.

    “It’s very scary when a disease like Ebola gets into a country with a very fragile health care system that can’t effectively block transmission,” she says.

    Australians, she observes, are “really lucky” to have the VIDRL and its scientists, who have the highly specialised expertise needed for such a rare virus.

    It’s a year since Catton and his team moved to the Doherty, a $210 million facility jointly operated by the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Named after Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Peter Doherty, who works in the building, the Institute brought together hundreds of scientists from different areas – research, diagnostics, teaching, medicine and public health – to collaborate in the fight against infectious diseases.