Australian researchers get cracking on coronavirus vaccine

Can the University of Queensland develop a vaccine for the coronavirus?

The University of Queensland has been asked to develop a vaccine for the recent coronavirus outbreak at unprecedented speed, using new technology.

The university is one of three organisations around the world that are all working independently to crack the code that leads to the creation of a vaccine.

One of the researchers leading the project, Dr Keith Chappell said the “best case scenario is we hope to have material for dosing into humans within 16 weeks.”

“We need to show it can be used and that it generates an immune response. We’re trying to move as quickly as possible,” Dr Chappell said.

The university was requested to lead the world’s vaccination efforts by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations(CEPI) because of its recently developed rapid response technology which potentially allows new vaccines to be available worldwide in as little as six months.

UQ Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj said the fluidity of the current outbreak represented a significant challenge to the international community.

He said the rapid vaccine technology has been tested against a number of other well-known viruses and it has shown incredibly promising trends.

In this particular instance Professor Høj said developing a vaccine “would be the fastest production you could imagine so there is no guarantee of success.”

“There is a lot that is still unknown regarding how easily the virus is able to be transmitted between humans,” he said.

Dr Chappell said the UQ team have been preparing for an outbreak like this over the last 12 months and “we’re doing all we can to develop a vaccine.”

He said the team of about 20 researchers will work around the clock to develop a vaccine.

“It’s a high pressure situation but there are three different groups with three different systems around the world working on it, so it’s not all on us.”

Dr Chappell said while they’ll ideally develop a vaccine within 16 weeks, it’s difficult to say how long it will actually take.

Developing the vaccine doesn’t mean working with the live virus though. It all begins with a DNA sequence and the researchers work to create a protein which is the same as the protein on the virus.

“Basically, we are mimicking the virus. We start from its genetic code and use that to produce protein,” Dr Chappell said.

As to the origins of the virus there have been numerous theories put forward but at present it would seem bat viruses are its closest known relatives. Moreover, Dr Chappell said it’s about 75 per cent similar to SARS, “so we can translate what we already know about SARS to this virus but we don’t know what the differences are as yet.”

UQ’s Professor Trent Munro and a team leader on the project said the group is working with a whole range of partners to see “what we can do as fast as possible”.

“The great limiting step is not the production side, it’s all the safety aspects we need to take into account  to ensure we have something suitable for humans,” Professor Munro said.

“We’re aiming to produce an injectable dose, so pre-filled syringes can be sent around the world,” Dr Chappell concluded.

Image: (L-R) Professor Trent Munro and Dr Keith. Chappell busy in the lab, as part of an international collaboration to develop a vaccine for the recent coronavirus outbreak. Supplied: University of Queensland

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