Australian researchers race to develop coronavirus vaccines

Photo: University of Queensland

Australian scientists at the University of Melbourne are the first to develop a lab-grown coronavirus outside China, in a major break-through that will speed up work towards a vaccine for the disease.

Scientists from the Peter Doherty Institution for Infection and Immunity – a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne hospital – have successfully grown the Wuhan coronavirus from a patient sample, which will provide expert international laboratories with crucial information to help combat the virus.

“Chinese officials released the genome sequence of this novel coronavirus, which is helpful for diagnosis, however, having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities – it will be a game changer for diagnosis,” the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Dr Julian Druce, Virus Identification Laboratory Head, said.

The Doherty Institute-grown virus is expected to be used to generate an antibody test, which allows detection of the virus in patients who haven’t displayed symptoms and were therefore unaware they had the virus.

“An antibody test will enable us to retrospectively test suspected patients so we can gather a more accurate picture of how widespread the virus is, and consequently, among other things, the true mortality rate,”  Doherty Institute Deputy Director Dr Mike Catton said said.

The virus was grown from a patient who had been infected since Friday.

“We’ve planned for an incident like this for many, many years and that’s really why we were able to get an answer so quickly,” Dr Catton said.

Dr Catton also credited the success to Australia’s network of laboratories and public health authorities effectively working together.

Meanwhile, University of Queensland (UQ) researchers are using new technology to work towards a vaccine, after having been asked by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

CEPI requested the University to use its recently developed rapid response technology to develop the new vaccine, which could be available worldwide in as little as six months.

Head of UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, professor Paul Young said UQ had novel technology for the rapid generation of new vaccines from the knowledge of a virus’s genetic sequence information.

Dr Keith Chappell, from the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology explained that the key to the speedy development of the potential vaccine was the ‘molecular clamp’ technology, invented by UQ scientists and patented by UniQuest.

“The University of Queensland’s molecular clamp technology provides stability to the viral protein that is the primary target for our immune defence,” Chappell said.

“The technology has been designed as a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and animal viruses and has shown promising results in the laboratory targeting viruses such as influenza, Ebola, Nipah and MERS coronavirus.”