APPLIED research on potentially lethal viruses evolving in Asia will be imperilled following the decision not to renew funding for the Australian Biosecurity Co-operative Research Centre, its chief executive Stephen Prowse has warned.
"Research in a number of critical areas of emerging infectious disease will slow down if not stop," Dr Prowse told the HES in his first public comments since last month's decision.
He said preparedness to combat these diseases would be "adversely affected".
The CRC committee advised Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister Kim Carr not to renew funding for the biosecurity centre, which was launched in Brisbane in 2003.
Some of what the centre wanted to do could be "pertinent in the defence and national security domains", the committee said in an evaluation document obtained by the HES.
But the committee said the centre's application was not competitive enough. Observers said the committee had failed to grasp the significance of the centre's plans, which were based on the new international "one health" strategy, which focuses on the shift of diseases between wildlife, domestic animals and humans.
Swine flu and the outbreak of the Hendra virus in Brisbane appear to vindicate this approach.
"The (biosecurity centre) proposal was based very strongly around one health, where you bring all the relevant disciplines together to solve these important global and community issues, and it was quite clear the CRC evaluation team didn't understand one health and even suggested it was too complex," Murdoch University's veterinary and biomedical sciences dean John Edwards said.
A former deputy director of the biosecurity centre, John Mackenzie from Curtin University, agreed: "It became clear from the feedback that they (the CRC committee) had no concept of what we were about or the thrust of the emerging one health idea aimed at understanding the human disease threats from wildlife that is gathering a huge amount of momentum in the US and Europe."
Professor Mackenzie said the decision to deny the centre funding was bizarre.
He is worried by a dangerous level of mutation in bat-borne viruses in Asia, the overlapping of Asian and Australian bat populations, and the potential threat to human health. In May, when the HES first reported the views of the CRC committee, Professor Mackenzie said: "We really have to have good surveillance at theanimal-human interface, and the Biosecurity CRC wanted toextend the (surveillance) horizon further into Asia and do capacity-building."
In its proposal for renewed funding, the centre included early warning projects in Asia, an approach to so-called "emerging infectious diseases" similar to that taken by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CRC committee document justified its adverse recommendation by saying the application from the centre failed to show "a strong track record" and did not include as a partner the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service with the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
But commentators familiar with the process said that department already was a partner, and the centre had been credited with achievements such as tracing the source of severe acute respiratory syndrome to a bat in China.
Peter Jonson, chairman of the CRC committee, defended the decision, telling the HES that some of the country's leading scientists were on the panel that made the decision to recommend against a renewal of funding for the biosecurity centre.
"It's terribly rigorous and competitive. There were some pretty powerful applications," DrJonson said.
For example, the CRC for Greenhouse Gas Technologies funding won $20 million in renewed funding.
Dr Prowse said there was no sign of an alternative group of expertise in biosecurity taking shape to fill the vacuum left by the centre.
Other proposals in the field of emerging infectious disease were likely, but any successful centre would not be up and running until 2011, he said. He said the centre's work on bat-borne viruses - such as the nipah virus from India and Bangladesh - "will also probably stop".
The centre had trained 72 postgraduate research students who had made a big contribution to preparedness in disease-fighting; 25 to 30 of these had come from neighbouring countries of the region.
Supervisors would make sure postgraduates completed their training, Professor Edwards said.
"But they'll miss out on the extra things the CRC provides, including opportunities for networking, more advanced training and the newsletter, which has been of significant value," he said.
A spokeswoman for Senator Carr said the government was strongly committed to ensuring Australia was prepared to deal with pandemics.
In December last year the government released the Beale report, which reviewed Australia's quarantine and biosecurity arrangements.
A detailed response was being considered, including the possible workings of a national biosecurity commission, she said.
Cross-species diseases proliferating in the wild
THE decision to deny the biosecurity centre the $42million it sought for another six years comes as international research warns of a "brewing storm" of emerging infectious diseases leaping across species barriers from wildlife to livestock to humans.
About 60 per cent of the 1461 diseases recognised in humans were due to multi-host pathogens that cross species lines, the Zoological Society of London's Kate E. Jones wrote in a letter to the journal Nature last year.
Dr Jones, lead author of the group letter, said emerging infectious diseases were dominated by "zoonotic" diseases emanating from animals, with the majority of these originating from wildlife. More of these diseases were expected.
The emergence of nipah virus in Malaysia and severe acute respiratory syndrome in Guandong, China, were examples of zoonotic diseases representing "an increasing and very significant threat to global health", she wrote.
Socioeconomic, environmental and ecological factors were creating disease hot spots that showed a substantial risk of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases originating at lower latitudes where health reporting was poor.
The global effort for surveillance and investigation of these diseases was misallocated, with the majority of scientific resources focused where it was least likely that the next important pathogen would emerge, the authors of the letter wrote.
"We advocate reallocation of resources for 'smart surveillance' of emerging disease hot spots in lower latitudes, such as tropical Africa, Latin America and Asia, including targeted surveillance of at-risk people to identify early case clusters of potentially new (emerging infectious diseases) before their large-scale emergence," they said.