Coronavirus: Australians scientists in global hunt for vaccine

Australian scientists are among researchers from almost 50 universities, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies driving to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus as part of a massive worldwide effort to combat the disease.
In response to the rapidly unfolding virus threat, University of Queensland experts are preparing to trial two existing medications to treat the illness while researchers in the United States have already begun clinical tests of an experimental vaccine.
Across the world, scientists are exploring the use of a wide array of technologies and treatments to halt the virus by building immunity or preventing it from reproducing.
Director of epidemiology at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, Professor Jodie McVernon, said there were many clinical trials underway.
“Vaccine development through coordinating international mechanisms, there are platforms in place, those are being activated but we also then know we need to go from discovery, to development, to clinical trials,” Professor McVernon said.
Head of Adelaide University’s Viral Pathogenesis Research Laboratory, Associate Professor Michael Beard, said it was still “early days” in developing a treatment, and experts have cautioned a vaccine may take 12 to 18 months to be ready.
“We don’t have any evidence about whether these vaccines will work until they are made and appropriately trialled. All these need to take place. This is why we say it is going to be a long process,” Professor McVernon said.
The delay has led some to question whether the outbreak will have largely run its course by the time an inoculation is ready.
But Associate Professor Beard said it was “very important that we try to get a vaccine”.
“A vaccine will be useful given that many, many people will be infected with the virus. It could become like other coronaviruses that infect us on a seasonal basis,” he said.
The University of Queensland team is planning to test whether two existing treatments, the anti-malarial drug chloroquine and the anti-retroviral HIV medication lopinavir/ritonavir, are effective against COVID-19.
The planned research follows early trials in China showing chloroquine inhibited the virus at low concentrations.
In the United States, researchers have begun trials of a vaccine that was already being developed to treat other respiratory illnesses. The vaccine, mRNA-1273, uses a small piece of the virus’s genetic code rather than the virus itself, to elicit an immune response.
Initial tests on 45 volunteers began this week and will finish in early May. But it will need to pass a broader stage two trial before it can go into mass production, and its developer Moderna warned that was still months away.
Associate Professor Beard bemoaned that the world would have been much better placed if it had persisted with the research effort that was launched following the deadly SARS outbreak in 2002.
“When SARS was happening there was a big push to get a vaccine but when the outbreak ended the funding and effort to generate a vaccine stopped,” he said. “If we had been allowed to pursue that we might have been in a better situation now. That gives you a sense of how important research and development is.”
Medical experts are also concerned about the extent of testing for the virus in Australia.
Gaetan Burgio, infectious diseases expert at Australian National University’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, said the nation’s testing capability was “too low. We are not testing enough people.”
Dr Burgio said that to control the virus’s spread carriers needed to be detected before they showed symptoms, but that would require far more tests than were currently available.
Given supply constraints, limiting tests to health workers with symptoms, those returning from overseas or those who have been in contact with a case made sense, he said.
There are two types of tests that have been developed – a swab that tests whether the virus is present, and a blood test to detect if there has been an immune system response to a covid-19 infection.
Dr Burgio said both were useful, but was particularly impressed by a rapid test developed in the UNited Kingdon that could provide a result in 15 minutes.
He said such immediate feedback would make it easier to identify and isolate infected people, improve the chances of slowing the virus’s spread.
  • For information on COVID-19, please go to the ACT Health website or federal Health Department’s website.
  • You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
  • If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)

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