Queensland developing coronavirus vaccine

University of Queensland researchers lead global effort to stop epidemic.

Researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) are only months away from developing a vaccine for novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

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.”

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

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Lead researcher Dr Keith Chappell said a vaccine could be ready for human trials by mid-year.

“In our best-case scenario, we aim to have a material ready for dosing humans in 16 weeks,” Dr Chappell said.

“We have shown great success with a number of viruses and we have people and systems in place to be able to move very quickly.”

The innovative process means a vaccine can be developed without using a live form of the virus.

“Our system starts from a DNA sequence, we don't use the virus at any step of the process,” Dr Chappell said.

“We take that DNA sequence and produce a protein that's the same as what's on the surface of the live virus.

“By delivering that protein with an adjuvant (an immunological agent that helps create a stronger immune response in people receiving the vaccine) we're able to elicit an immune response in vaccinated people so that if they encounter the virus they have a form of protection.”

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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.”

Dr Chappell said it was impossible to predict the future impact of COVID-19.

“There are so many unknowns so I really can't say,” he said.

 “The key information we don't have is how transmissible this virus is. 

“Best-case scenario, the virus is contained long before we ever have a product.”

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.