Queensland developing coronavirus vaccine

University of Queensland researchers lead global effort to stop epidemic.

The University of Queensland’s potential COVID-19 vaccine is entering a crucial new phase of testing using the live coronavirus.

The UQ team has partnered with Dutch company, Viroclinics Xplore, on the crucial pre-clinical studies. Samples of the potential vaccine have been sent to the Netherlands for testing in a biosecurity facility.

The vaccine candidate will be used on the live coronavirus for the first time to determine how effectively it induces protection against infection. If successful, it will be followed by human trials later this year.

Vaccine program co-leader Dr Keith Chappell said the ability to build on an existing partnership with a world-class facility like Viroclinics Xplore was a huge advantage for the UQ project.

“These protection studies must be done in specialist biosecurity facilities as they use the live virus, and our long-standing partnership with Viroclinics Xplore gives us the confidence that this can be achieved as quickly as possible,” he said.

“This work will establish a critical package of data that will take us through to human clinical trials in Q3 2020.”

A team of 20 UQ scientists, as part of the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) rapid response program, has been working around the clock to develop a vaccine.

In January, the CEPI requested UQ use its rapid response vaccine technology to develop a vaccine, and the candidate being tested was produced within the first three weeks.

UQ’s Professor Trent Munro said beginning a large multi-arm study at Viroclinics Xplore was critical as the team moved toward initial human safety testing as it would establish a better understanding of how the vaccine performed.

The vaccine has been developed using UQ’s molecular clamp technology that locks the “spike” protein into a shape which allows the immune system to recognise and then neutralise the virus.

UQ has also announced a partnership with Cytiva, formerly known as GE Healthcare Life Sciences, which will develop the material for clinical trials and is also preparing scale-up equipment for future mass production.

Dr Chappell said UQ was able to use data from the 2003 SARS epidemic to speed up production of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The virus is similar but not identical (to SARS), it's about 75% similar but we don't yet know what those differences mean,” he said.

“We can translate what we know already about SARS to this new virus which makes it a lot easier process for us.

“There are a lot of steps ahead of us and we need to show that this vaccine is both safe an effective before we're able to put it in to humans.”

UQ is one of only three programs globally, and the only one in Australia, leveraging ‘rapid response’ platforms in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Immunologist Professor Ian Frazer, one of the creators of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, said UQ was on the cutting-edge of vaccine research.

“Queensland has arguably the best centre for vaccine development at UQ,” Prof. Frazer said.

“We have a whole group of people working on new technologies for getting vaccines out quickly when there's an epidemic, as we have at the moment with the coronavirus.”