Researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) say they are just days away from testing a new vaccine for coronavirus, or COVID-19, on animals.
Paul Young, head of the university’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said a team of 20 UQ scientists had been working around the clock to speed up the vaccine building process since the outbreak of the virus.
Researchers from UQ were funded by an international organisation called the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) to use new rapid medical development technology to help create a vaccine for the new virus strain.
This followed the breakthrough by Australian scientists in developing a lab-grown version of the disease.
“It started back when China released the sequence back in late January. That gave us the viral genome we needed to take and express,” Dr Young said.
“A key milestone is actually generating the vaccine prior to putting it into animal studies.
“We will be going into our first animal studies at the University of Queensland this week, to be followed not long after [by] studies at the Australian Animal Health laboratories at the CSIRO in Geelong.”
Dr Young said while the UQ work was groundbreaking, it was hard to say if it was the world’s first vaccine developed for coronavirus.
He said there are multiple versions of vaccines and a variety of approaches that can all be as effective as each other.
“The best thing that can happen is happening now — that is, there is a wide number of groups working toward vaccine approaches, and quite frankly the first one that gets there it will be great,” Dr Young said.
“It is not a race between vaccine producers, it is a race against this particular virus.
“It is a new territory for vaccine design. Vaccines take many years to develop from concept to licence and use in the community.
“What we are aiming for is somewhere between 12 and 18 months, which is remarkably quick.”
Dr Young said the UQ team had developed 100 different versions of a protein to work out which would be most effective against the virus.
He said they now planned to conduct pre-clinical trials (including animal testing) and hoped to undertake human trials by the middle of the year.
“Those trials are testing that the vaccine actually induces the immune response we are expecting to start manufacturing in levels that are high enough and in a pure enough state such that we can put them into humans, ” he said.
Dr Young said the team was already working on a rapid response to potential global disease outbreaks.
After completing animal studies, he said they would send the vaccine to the CSIRO for further testing.
“It has been significantly more challenging than we thought,” he said.