Australia’s koala population is being plagued by an AIDS-like virus that is leaving them more vulnerable to chlamydia and other threatening health conditions.

The findings are from one of University of Queensland’s (UQ) leading COVID-19 vaccine researchers, Associate Professor Keith Chappell. He discovered that the chlamydia epidemic plaguing endangered koala populations in Queensland and NSW is linked to a common virus that likely supresses koalas’ immune systems.

Dr Chappell and Dr Michaela Blyton, from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology and School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, made this discovery after studying more than 150 koalas admitted to Currumbin Wildlife Hospital.

Dr Chappell said this study could have far reaching impacts and lead to better protective measures like breeding programs and new anti-viral medications.

“We know Queensland and NSW koala populations are heavily impacted by chlamydia infections and a retrovirus, but until now a clear link between the two has not been conclusively established,” Professor Chappell said.

“Our research has found that the amount of retrovirus circulating within an animal’s blood was strongly associated with chlamydia and symptoms like cystitis and conjunctivitis, as well as overall poor health.

“It’s a double whammy for already-endangered koalas.”

Dr Chappell said they found high levels of the virus increased a koala’s risk of chlamydia by more than 200 per cent.

“There is no question that koala retrovirus and chlamydia are connected, and we believe the retrovirus suppresses the koala’s immune system, making them more vulnerable to disease.”

It was previously assumed that a particular subtype of koala retrovirus may be more capable of causing disease, but this research has found that all the subtypes increase disease and has further highlighted the urgent need to stop the virus circulating within koala populations.