by Chris Griffith
Published 27 Oct 1996 in The Sunday Mail
Northern Territory flying fox expert Michael Vardon yesterday confirmed that University of Queensland colleague Dr Len Martin "was fighting like hell" to save the university's bat colony, and was concerned that bats could be euthanased.
This follows the Department of Primary Industry's (DPI) announcement 11 days ago that it had discovered antibodies to the deadly virus in around 15 percent of flying foxes it had tested.
Mr Vardon said all samples of flying fox blood and serum used by the DPI, came either from a very large network of flying fox carers around Australia, or from captured animals in the university's breeding colony.
Mr Vardon said one of the four flying foxes from Brisbane that the DPI claimed had antibodies came from the university.
Yesterday Dr Martin refused to comment on the claim.
And Dr Martin's departmental head, Physiology and Pharmacology Professor Mick McManus, was not available for comment.
However his spokesman, departmental manager Peter Lye, said a meeting between university and DPI officers next week (which had been scheduled some time ago) would decide the colony's future.
Mr Lye said many of the academics who once used the bat colony for vision, touch, and hearing research had left.
He said the current population of around 60 bats was no longer required.
The DPI's principle veterinary officer for emergency diseases, Ian Douglas, said any move to destroy the bat colony was unnecessary.
"My personal opinion is that I can't see why anyone would want to do that. People coming into contact with flying foxes in the past have experienced no ill-effects.
"That's a pretty good trial to show that the virus isn't a risk to humans in flying foxes."
Mr Vardon said destruction would set a dangerous precedent.
"Does that mean they're going to kill all the animals associated with any bat that might have the disease?
"And does that mean anyone throughout Queensland no longer will be allowed to handle bats because they might have this disease that might be able to kill you?
"It's a lot of `mights', and a precautionary principle gone berserk."
Queensland scientists have been researching the mystery disease since the death of Mr Rail and 14 horses in September 1994.
Another seven horses affected by the virus were destroyed, and Queensland's racing industry was temporarily shut down.
In October last year, Mackay cane farmer Mark Preston became the virus's second known victim.
Since 1994, scientists have tested around 35 native species for evidence of the disease: some 5,000 animals, mostly horses, and around 500 cats.
They found no evidence of the virus except in flying foxes. They found that around 15 percent of flying foxes tested across all four species present in Queensland carried antibodies that cross-reacted to equine morbillivirus.
However bat researchers say there is a fundamental flaw in the DPI's case.
On the one hand, the DPI claims the virus in the bats is basically identical to equine morbillivirus, yet on the other, the DPI says the bats do not represent any risk to humans.
Bat researchers have also questioned the small (around 35) number of native species that the DPI tested. They point out there are 35 microbat species alone in Queensland that were not tested.
Mr Douglas said the virus in bats was probably an earlier part of a chain which eventually saw the disease transmitted to horses, and in two rare cases to humans.