December 18, 2018
Researcher and veterinarian Dr Anthony Chamings explains “One Health” and how his research is helping Australia to prepare for future pandemics.
What is your role at the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (GCEID)?
I’m an Associate Research Fellow at GCEID in a position funded by CSIRO and Deakin University.
I originally trained and practiced as a veterinarian but my interest in diagnostics and pathology led to my undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne. After work in avian, poultry and wildlife diseases, my position at GCEID is a great fit.
At the moment, 100% of my time is at GCEID and I’ve really enjoyed being able to just focus on research. At this stage, I don’t have time for clinical work.
What made you choose to add research to your clinical career?
When I was working in clinics, and a pathology lab, we’d see lots of clinical issues where current veterinary medicine didn’t have all the answers and there were many things we just didn’t know. In the clinic, you don’t get a chance to dig more deeply into problems because you’re too busy moving on to help the next patient.
Research is interesting because it lets you look at a problem in more depth so you can get more traction and work towards new discoveries and answers to problems.
As a researcher, having a clinical background helps you to focus your research to ask how it makes a difference to the animals or their owners or the farmers. I really like the research environment – it’s an interface where I can talk to vets, doctors, ecologists, public health researchers and scientists to get different perspectives on ideas and we can combine knowledge to solve problems.
What is One Health and what do you like about working in that area?
The way I see One Health is that healthy people have to be in a healthy environment and animals are a part of that environment. This means we need animals, plants and the environment to be healthy because we rely on them for so many things.
We can’t look at things in isolation any more. To understand some human health problems, you have to look at what’s happening in agricultural animals, wildlife and the environment and study what’s actually driving interactions between humans and animals.
I like One Health because it’s multidisciplinary and people can come together and work towards solving bigger issues. We no longer have people working in silos of just one scientific or health field.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for One Health research?
I think a common challenge in many fields of research is trying to communicate your research so the general public understands how the research has value and how researchers are trying to work on things that will have an impact. We need to try to engage people so they are interested and know what’s happening and why it’s happening.
Also, many One Health issues won’t be solved in the laboratory. We need the public on board so we can start changing policies and behaviours to help solve some of the problems people are experiencing in Australia and around the world.
What One Health projects are you working on and how do they fit in with preparing for future pandemics?
We have two projects directly related to pandemic preparedness – coronaviruses and other viruses in wild birds and parechovirus in infants.
We also have a project indirectly related to pandemic preparedness. We’re studying antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in a One Health context in Australia so we don’t lose the ability to treat infections because of resistance to antibiotics/antimicrobials.
Can you tell us about the coronavirus project?
The coronavirus project covers both One Health and pandemic preparedness. Coronaviruses belong to the family of viruses that causes SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). We’re studying coronaviruses in wild birds and we’re looking at how the migratory birds move viruses to different geographical locations.
Researchers think a coronavirus has jumped from wild birds into pigs in Asia and North America and this sparked our interest in this work. Some viruses such as influenza viruses and Nipah virus have jumped from wild birds or bats into pigs before spreading into people, so we want to understand what is happening with coronaviruses in Australia.
How does the parechovirus project fit in with infectious emergency preparedness?
The second pandemic preparedness project is on human parechovirus, which is an emerging virus in Australia. There have been three epidemics in very young babies in Australia, with the outbreaks occurring every two years – in 2013, 2015, and the latest one was in 2017.
Researchers and clinicians around the world have recognised that certain types of parechovirus can make young babies quite ill and can result in the need for intensive care treatment.
The national epidemic in 2017 was the most severe outbreak we’ve had in Australia. We’re researching the strain of parechovirus in Australia and how it’s changing over time. We now know that genetic elements of two different parechoviruses have combined to create the parechovirus strain circulating in Australia.
Aspects of parechovirus we don’t understand include why the epidemics occur every two years and where the virus goes for the year between outbreaks. It could be circulating in people during that time but we’re not sure.
Although animals have viruses closely related to parechovirus, the parechovirus circulating in Australia seems to be a human virus. However researchers have found some human parechoviruses can infect animals like pigs in other countries and therefore a One Health approach may help us better understand this virus.
If we can understand the genetics of parechovirus circulating in Australia this will help us to understand what we can do about the virus, when the next epidemic might occur and whether there is something that we can do about it – can we make a vaccine or some other treatment that can protect young babies?