Every member of the royal family visiting Australia has taken the obligatory souvenir snap with a cuddly koala and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were no different, sidling up to a prime specimen at Taronga Zoo last October.

But unlike other royals before her, Meghan was careful to avoid any contact with the koala she posed with — a detail that wasn't missed by the British press, who speculated the newly-pregnant duchess had been told not to touch because of koala chlamydia, a devastating disease that is spreading virtually unchecked throughout the country. (Although it's worth noting humans cannot contract the disease, and Taronga's koalas are unlikely to have been infected anyway.)

Koala chlamydia — a sexually transmitted disease with symptoms ranging from infertility and blindness to excruciating urinary tract infections and kidney failure — is now at epidemic levels, with some wild populations in Queensland having a 100 per cent infection rate.

Dr Michael Pyne, Senior Veterinary Officer at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, Queensland, has watched the disease spread first-hand.


"Ten years ago we admitted 28 koalas. Last year we had 461," Dr Pyne said. "We're getting calls from vets in the southern states saying 'Look, we're seeing our first case of chlamydia. How do you treat it?'

"The problems that we have now in Queensland and northern New South Wales are going to become the problems that everyone in the southern states is going to see," he said.

"It's a massive issue that we're dealing with in Queensland and we don't want it to become a massive issue throughout Australia. We've got to find ways to prevent that before it happens."

Treating koala chlamydia is problematic.

Senior vet at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Dr Michael Pyne, takes care of Turbo the koala, who's recovering from chlamydia. Photo / Supplied
Senior vet at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Dr Michael Pyne, takes care of Turbo the koala, who's recovering from chlamydia. Photo / Supplied

"One of the issues of the current treatment is that normal antibiotics kill all the good bacteria, or the microbiome, that help koalas digest gum leaves. The consequence is that koalas can't get nutrition and they waste away," University of Technology Sydney research group leader said.. "And it takes a really long time to get them well."

But Dr Huston has discovered a new antibiotic, which kills koala chlamydia bacteria without the harrowing and costly side effects of the current antibiotic treatment.

"The tricky thing with koalas is that they metabolise toxins much quicker than human bodies do because gum leaves have toxins," Dr Huston said.

She explained that the new antibiotic needs to be "optimised" to make sure it isn't metabolised too quickly, but stays in the koala's body long enough to do its job.


The new drug has the potential to end the current epidemic, but it is currently sitting dormant in a university science lab because funding to finalise the drug's development has dried up despite koala chlamydia rates skyrocketing.

"Government funding is very competitive and rightly so," she said. "There are so many things that the government has to fund for koalas, like habitat protection. Disease is just one of the important priorities.

"So, we're also looking at funding from charitable foundations and we're even trying to reach out to pharmaceutical companies who might want to do this as a philanthropic means."

The NSW Government says it will commit $45 million to implement their Koala Strategy, launched last year. How much will be allocated to drug research is unclear as the Office of Environment and Heritage wouldn't comment due to the upcoming state election.

Although the NSW Koala Strategy implies significant funding for habitat protection, it also states it will fund research including trials of the koala chlamydia vaccine.

Professor Peter Timms leads koala chlamydia vaccine research at University of the Sunshine Coast and said that the stage government is "doing a pretty darned good job at co-ordinating koala research".

Prof Timms hopes the new antibiotic receives funding soon and believes that both a cure and vaccine are required to better manage the epidemic.

Dr Huston agrees that collaboration is essential.

"In every successful public health campaign that we run, using humans as a model, we know we need both a treatment for the disease and a vaccine to prevent it," she said.

"The koala is really special to us all. It's unique to Australia, we all care about it. It's really sad to see one with chlamydia. You can see they're in pain."