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27 Nov 2019

Australian Barmah Forest virus found in Papua New Guinea

A collaboration involving Doherty Institute researchers has discovered the Barmah Forest virus, previously thought to be found only in Australia, in Papua New Guinea (PNG), raising questions of its origins.

The virus was isolated in Papua New Guinea in 2014 when a patient from a remote village presented with symptoms of a fever.

First discovered out of Barmah Forest in Victoria in 1970’s, the vector-borne virus causes fever, joint pain and can develop into arthralgia.

Whilst not fatal, the effects on a person’s joints can have devastating economic effects for individuals, particularly for manual labourers and farmers.

When the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) at the Doherty Institute ran whole genome sequencing on the sample they found it to be distantly related to the Barmah Forest virus seen in Australia.

Dr Leon Caly, Senior Medical Scientist at VIDRL said that such a finding suggested that the Barmah Forest virus was not a recent introduction to PNG.

“This child was from a remote village, they didn’t have any history of international travel and there was no real opportunity for them to come into contact with an Australian who had it,” Dr Caly said.

“We performed common ancestor analysis which looked at the mutations in the PNG sequence compared to the Australian sequences and it appears these viruses diverged around 100 years ago.”

As Barmah Forest virus was only first identified in Australia 50 years ago, there are not enough sequences in the genetics databases to do an in-depth analysis.

“We are now asking, has the virus been in Australia for hundreds of years and then travelled to PNG, perhaps during WW1 when there were troops heading north? Or was it the other way around? Was Australia seeded by virus from PNG?” Dr Caly said.

“So we don’t actually know where the virus started.”

Larger serological studies are now needed to answer these questions.  

The discovery has highlighted how viruses could be traveling around the world undetected.

“Here is a virus that has existed in a population for around 100 years and no-one has known about it,” Dr Caly said.

“Luckily this one isn’t fatal, but it begs the question – what else don’t we know about?”