Queensland enlisted in search for coronavirus vaccine

Australian university joins race to control virus

January 23, 2020
coronavirus SARS

The University of Queensland has been commissioned to fast-track a vaccine to help control the new coronavirus outbreak as concern mounts over its potential spread.

Queensland is one of three groups commissioned to develop a vaccine against the virus, known as nCoV-2019, by the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The aim is to advance vaccine candidates into clinical testing as quickly as possible.

The development comes just a week after the Brisbane-based university signed a partnership with CEPI, which has funded it to help construct a “rapid-response pipeline” capable of developing and testing new vaccines in as little as 16 weeks.

The National Institutes of Health in the US is also reportedly in the process of developing a vaccine, as are the biotech companies Novavax, Moderna and Inovio – the last two also funded by CEPI. But experts say it could be more than a year before a vaccine is available, and months before early stage clinical trials can be initiated.

That could be too long, with widespread suspicions that reports from China – where the virus originated – understate the extent of the outbreak. Questions on transmissibility remain unanswered, including the crucial issue of whether the disease can be caught from infected people who are not yet exhibiting symptoms.

“There is a lot that is still unknown regarding how easily the virus is able to be transmitted between humans,” said Queensland vice-chancellor Peter Høj.

Paul Young, head of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said the university had developed a new way to rapidly generate vaccines from analyses of viruses’ genetic sequence information.

He said the team hoped to develop a vaccine in the next six months for distribution to first responders, helping to prevent medics from becoming infected and accelerating the disease’s spread.

Co-lead investigator Keith Chappell said “molecular clamp” technology developed and patented by Queensland would be key to the project’s success. “[It] provides stability to the viral protein that is the primary target for our immune defence.”

The technology had been designed as a “platform approach” to generate vaccines against human and animal viruses, he said. It had shown promising results in laboratory tests targeting viruses such as influenza, Ebola, the potentially lethal Nipah and Middle East respiratory syndrome.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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