Conservation

/ Introduction

Conservation Medicine and EcoHealth Alliance begun their collaboration with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in 2005 and with Sabah Wildlife Department in 2011.

The Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia established their Wildlife Disease Surveillance Program in part as a result of their involvement in the PREDICT project ensuring that disease surveillance that benefits not only public health but also wildlife health continues. While in Sabah the establishment of the Wildlife Health Unit a collaboration between Sabah Wildlife Department, Conservation Medicine and EcoHealth Alliance created a unit which has taken on the responsibility of leading the diagnostic evaluation of rescued and relocated wildlife across the state, as well as conducting sampling trips to trap and sample free-ranging wildlife for zoonotic diseases.

/ Laboratory Strengthening

Certified biocontainment laboratory design

Conservation Medicine and EcoHealth Alliance have built laboratory capacity in Sabah in collaboration with Sabah Wildlife Department and Danau Girang Field Centre and are part of the management committee for Sabah Wildlife Department’s – Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory. Conservation Medicine designed and oversaw the building of this Biosafety Level 2 biocontainment laboratory that has been certified since 2013 to international standards and is used to screen samples for zoonotic disease, genetic and forensic research.

In Peninsular Malaysia, Conservation Medicine and EcoHealth Alliance have built laboratory capacity in collaboration with Department of Wildlife and National Parks. Conservation Medicine helped design and oversee the establishment of the Molecular Zoonosis Laboratory, at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, National Wildlife Forensic Laboratory. This Biosafety Level 2 biocontainment laboratory came online in March 2017 and has been certified each year to international standards. This state of the art facility has allowed Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia to play an even larger role in zoonotic disease surveillance.

State-of-the-art screening for endangered species

In order to better understand the health of key wildlife species and the threats faced by zoonosis and anthroponosis, health checks and disease screenings have been carried out by the Conservation Medicine and EcoHealth Alliance team in collaboration with Sabah Wildlife Department, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, and the Wildlife Health and Wildlife Rescue Units for the endangered orangutans, sun bears, and Bornean elephants held in captivity as well as from the wild.

Conservation Medicine and EcoHealth Alliance coordinated the sampling of 74 orangutans, 64 sun bears, and 13 elephants in Sabah and samples were tested at the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory. This state-of-the-art facility enables wildlife health monitoring, population and conservation genetics research, and wildlife forensic work.

Rapid results leading to improved decisions

The Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory was the first certified Biosafety Level 2 biocontainment laboratory in the region dedicated to wildlife work and allows Sabah Wildlife Department to rapidly assess wildlife health prior to relocation, to engage in comprehensive disease screening efforts, and support research projects. Through lab testing, we have found a total of 6 novel and 6 known viruses from these three iconic species. The results are essential for Sabah Wildlife Department to make decisions on the further actions required to conserve these important animals.

/ Results

Identifying Hepatitis B in Orangutans

During an annual health screening for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre orangutans the team from Conservation Medicine, EcoHealth Alliance, and the Wildlife Health Unit showed that the three orangutans being kept in quarantine had orangutan Hepatitis B, endemic to wild orangutans which does not pose a public health concern. Soon after that, Tiger, Rosalinda and Yoga were released into their newly built rehabilitation enclosure. Tiger – pictured here – was then released into the wild in 2018.


Improving elephant disease surveillance

In 2016, three captive orphan elephants died at the rescue centre located at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. An investigation into elephant deaths led by Conservation Medicine Laboratory Coordinator Mei Ho Lee at the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory, in collaboration with elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) experts, found a new and distinct strain of EEHV that caused the infection. This knowledge can help Sabah Wildlife Department better manage orphaned elephants in captivity and improve disease surveillance in wild populations. Mei Ho has now been advising our partners at the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia on how to conduct similar surveillance.


New Herpesvirus found in Sun Bears

Screening of the sun bears found a related virus to ursid herpesvirus 1 from 7 sun bears that has not previously been reported in Bornean sun bears. This will help the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre prepare to release some of the 44 bears back into the wild.


Better understanding of the impacts of land-use change

Through PREDICT project activities we have not only discovered new viruses; the Deep Forest Project has allowed us to better understand the impact of land-use change on species diversity and population dynamics. The genetic barcoding of sampled animals helped us to better understand the identity and distributions of these host species, including finding Indian pipistrelle (Pipistrellus cf. coromandra) bats not previously reported in Sabah.


Studying potential Herpes B transmission from macaques to humans

Our Laboratory Coordinator Mei Ho lead a project for Conservation Medicine, EcoHealth Alliance and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks screening free-ranging macaques on Peninsular Malaysia. This study provided important information about macaques and the shedding of Herpes B virus after capture and transport and suggests that persons handling macaques under these circumstances might be at risk for exposure. This information allows the authorities to work more safely with macaques that are a conflict species in Malaysia.


Research into SARS-CoV-2 promotes protection for pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade

Our Field Manager Jimmy Lee’s Masters focused on zoonotic virus surveillance and genetic diversity mapping of confiscated and rescued Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica). His research findings provide strong evidence that pangolins are not a reservoir species or the intermediary host for SARS-CoV-2 the virus that causes COVID-19 and that the detections of SARS-CoV-2-related viruses in pangolins are most likely a result of their exposure to infected people, wildlife, or other animals after they entered the illegal wildlife trade. These findings suggest that wild pangolins pose no threat to human health and highlight the importance of carefully ending the trade of wildlife and improving biosecurity at wet markets to avoid having wild animals co-mingling with farmed animals and humans. His research will play a significant role in promoting pangolin conservation action and further highlights the negative impacts the wildlife trade is having on human and wildlife health. His findings will also serve as a reference for future research on the population genetics of Sunda pangolins.


Rapid and reliable test results lead to more convictions for illegal wildlife trading

Setting up the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory has benefited both public health and wildlife conservation.

The poaching and smuggling of wildlife in Sabah means Sabah Wildlife Department is constantly conducting enforcement operations and collecting evidence including meat, bone, and ivory from animals that needs to be identified for cases to proceed to prosecution.

Historically one of the challenges faced by the department has been the lack of laboratory capacity in the state of Sabah so evidence has to be sent to Peninsular Malaysia for molecular analysis to identify the species. This process takes time, money, and creates a biosafety risk; this process often means the suspect has been released on bail and disappears or the case has to be dropped as the time period to press charges expires. The Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory allows Sabah Wildlife Department to conduct the lab testing without the delay, cost and biosecurity risks of shipping samples to Peninsular Malaysia.

The illegal wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar industry and a big problem in Sabah, for example Sabah is one of the global hotspots for the smuggling of the critically endangered Sunda pangolins, the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory will allow Sabah Wildlife Department to conduct species identification quickly which will lead to more convictions.

Conservation Medicine is working closely with Sabah Wildlife Department and Danau Girang Field Centre to obtain ISO 17025 accreditation enabling the laboratory to demonstrate that it can operate competently and generate valid results. Achieving this certification will allow Sabah Wildlife Department to start using the laboratory to process forensic samples for prosecutions to help in its efforts to battle the illegal wildlife trade and poaching which is important for both conservation and human health.

Conservation Medicine also secured funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to rectify the landslide at the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory and improve security including providing fencing, lights, grills for doors and windows and a CCTV system. All of these improvements help strengthen biosecurity at the lab and are requirements for the laboratory to be able to process forensic samples for prosecutions.

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About

/ Our Mission

Conservation Medicine, based in Malaysia, is committed to working with EcoHealth Alliance, our Malaysian partners, the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit and with our colleagues and partners across South East Asia and beyond to continue training and capacity building efforts to strengthen zoonotic research and improve biosecurity and biosafety. We will continue disease surveillance at high-risk interfaces and in hospital settings; identify which new pathogens pose a risk to humans, wildlife and livestock and improve diagnostics. We will also continue working with high-risk populations to reduce the risk of zoonotic spillover and with industry and others involved in land-use and development planning to help them develop the tools needed to make informed decisions about where and how to carry out land-use change.

This effort will help to build on our readiness to respond to the next Disease X.

/ The Challenge

Zoonotic spillover events are increasing

Increased deforestation, land-use change, the legal and illegal wildlife trade are causing more and more zoonotic spillover events.

In the last century, on average two new diseases have jumped from animals to humans every year. Many are mild or go unnoticed, but others – such as Ebola, HIV, SARS, Nipah and COVID-19 – can have devastating economic and public health impacts. Wild animals like bats and rodents are the natural reservoir for zoonotic pathogens and have carried these pathogens for thousands of years. They are not to blame for these disease emergence events – it is humans who are responsible for altering the environment and increasing contact and conflict with these important species.

Uncontrolled development is unsustainable

Development and agricultural activities alone are not the problem. It is the lack of respect for the natural environment and all it provides to keep us healthy as well as the pressure for short term economic profit over long term sustainability that drive disease emergence.

If we continue to grow our cities, expand our transport networks and convert land to agriculture without proper land-use planning, prioritising short term profit over protecting our natural habitat these events will continue to occur. The rainforest plays a vital role in preventing disease emergence, providing habitat for wildlife away from humans and livestock, as well as regulating the climate, absorbing carbon dioxide, and maintaining the world’s water cycle.

/ The Solution

Healthy Environment = Healthy Humans

If we want to have healthy humans, we need to have a healthy environment, healthy wildlife and healthy livestock. Harming or neglecting the care of one will have a direct impact on the others. As COVID-19 has reminded us, the human and natural worlds are interconnected – our impact on the natural environment will in turn impact us all. We must learn to balance our needs with the needs of the world around us, and sustainably manage the land we depend on for our own survival.

/ The Team

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Publications & Press

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Projects

Infectious Disease Emergence and Economics of Altered Landscapes (IDEEAL)

Quantifying the economic costs of the impact of deforestation on malaria outcomes in Sabah, Malaysia, and determining the optimal amount of land to be converted to agriculture that minimised these costs.


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PREDICT

Funded by USAID this project discovered novel zoonotic viruses in wildlife before they could potentially become human epidemics, and identified the factors that drive their emergence, amplification, and spread in populations.


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EID-SEARCH

Funded by NIAID, the creation of the Emerging Infectious Diseases / South East Asia Research Collaboration Hub aims to discover new viruses and characterise their risk of spillover to people, as well as identifying evidence of virus outbreaks not being detected by normative diagnostics.


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WHO Laboratory Biosafety and Risk Assessment Manuals

Working with the WHO and MORU to strengthen laboratory capacity in South East Asia.


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Biosurveillance of Henipaviruses & Filoviruses

Funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's Biological Threat Reduction Program, this project aims to strengthen capacity for serological surveillance within national labs and characterise henipavirus and filovirus exposure in bats, livestock and people in Peninsular Malaysia.


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Home

Conservation Medicine works with EcoHealth Alliance to develop science-based solutions to prevent pandemics and promote conservation.

Projects

Learn how our work in Malaysia and South East Asia are helping to identify and prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases.

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Publications
& Press

Read the papers and reports relating to our studies, and access media coverage of our activities.

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Resources

Download manuals, guides and toolkits we have developed with our partners for communities and researchers.

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Conservation

Strengthening laboratory capacity, raising public awareness and reporting the ecological effects of land-use change.

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/ Specialities

We have a unique skill set that enables us to train, research, discover and develop.

HUMAN, WILDLIFE AND LIVESTOCK SAMPLING


ZOONOTIC PATHOGEN SURVEILLANCE AND DISCOVERY


ONE HEALTH TRAINING AND CAPACITY BUILDING


LABORATORY DEVELOPMENT, BIOSAFETY AND BIOSECURITY


ZOONOSIS, LAND USE CHANGE AND CONSERVATION RESEARCH


/ COVID-19

How Conservation Medicine is involved in gaining further understanding of COVID-19, and helping to combat the global pandemic.

First diagnoses in Malaysia

On January 25th 2020, the first three human cases in Malaysia were diagnosed by the Ministry of Health using the Corona Quan protocol from the PREDICT project, after the Ministry of Health reached out to us for suggestions for diagnostic options while waiting for the primers, probes and controls for the WHO COVID-19 Berlin qPCR protocol to arrive in Malaysia.


Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) donations

In March and April 2020 we donated PPE to Sabah State Health Department, Tawau District in Sabah, and the Selangor State Health Department to help support the Malaysian response to the COVID-19 outbreak.


Sharing of information

Between January and March 2020 during the early stages of the outbreak we shared information, provided by our partners involved in the international response to COVID-19, with the Ministry of Health and colleagues on the front line in Malaysia on the latest testing protocols, PPE guidelines, biosafety advice and recommendations, SOPs for disinfecting in different settings and handling bodies, advice on serology platforms, SARS-CoV-2 risk assessment and relevant papers on SARS-CoV-2.


Arranging primers, probes and controls for WHO

In May 2020 through the PREDICT project we arranged for primers, probes, and controls for the WHO COVID-19 Berlin qPCR protocol for the National Public Health Laboratory, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, and the Kota Kinabalu Public Health Laboratory to help support their testing efforts.


Wildlife testing

In August 2020 through the PREDICT project, we screened 1254 archive samples in Malaysia from 1207 animals, including 28 priority species considered potential reservoir or host species for SARS-CoV-2, using a conventional PCR method modified from the COVID-19 Berlin protocol as part of a global effort to better understand the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 was not detected in any of the samples.


Organised testing supplies

Between June and September 2020 working with the US Embassy and using funds provided by the USAID Infectious Disease Detection and Surveillance team in Bangkok, Conservation Medicine helped organise, source, and coordinate the delivery of supplies for testing 10,000 people – valued at USD$300K – for the Kota Kinabalu Public Health Laboratory to help support the Ministry of Health in their impressive response to the COVID-19 outbreak.


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