Aussie boffins in the global hunt for coronavirus vaccine


Across the globe crack squads of elite scientists are staffing labs around the clock to work on 70 different vaccines for the coronavirus - three of which have already been fast-tracked for testing on humans.

And Australia is at the forefront of those efforts, with The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations collaborating with the University of Queensland and Dutch company Viroclinics to develop what is hoped to be a major weapon against the global outbreak which has killed almost 135,000 people.


Scientist Xinhua Yan in the Moderna lab in the US. Picture: David L. Ryan/Getty Images
Scientist Xinhua Yan in the Moderna lab in the US. Picture: David L. Ryan/Getty Images

"The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis which can only be defeated by a truly global response," said CEPI advocacy director Rachel Grant.

"CEPI is working at an unprecedented speed to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, in collaboration with scientists from around the world."

The Australian work is among the 70 potential vaccines listed across the globe by the World Health Organisation.



In the US, a 44-year-old mother of two was the first person to be injected with a possible vaccine for COVID-19 - considered one of three frontrunners being developed - after responding to a callout on Facebook for volunteers in Seattle.

"We're all so out of control and helpless. This just gave me something that I could hold on to that could be helpful," Jennifer Haller said after receiving the first of two vaccine shots that will be 28 days apart.

Ms Haller, one of 45 volunteers in the trial, said having the injection of drug company Moderna's mRNA-1273 potential vaccine at Seattle's Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute felt just like a normal flu shot. But it came with a "ton of risks".


Jennifer Haller gets the first shot in the clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19. Picture: Ted S. Warren/AP
Jennifer Haller gets the first shot in the clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19. Picture: Ted S. Warren/AP

America's infectious diseases chief Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the vaccine progress was unprecedented.

Researchers at Moderna said the progress of a zika virus vaccine in 20

16 had been considered "lightning fast" when it took 190 days. The first human trials for COVID-19 beat that record by 129 days.

"Going into a Phase One trial within three months of getting the sequence is unquestionably the world indoor record," Dr Fauci said of the first human trial. "Nothing has ever gone that fast."

Pennsylvania biotech company Inovia, which has received significant backing from tech billionaire Bill Gates, said earlier this week it had regulatory clearance to start human trials. The company is enrolling up to 40 healthy adults in Philadelphia and Kansas City for the trial. The Microsoft founder has said he is prepared to "waste billions of dollars" from his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build seven research facilities at once rather than do one at a time and wait longer for a possible vaccine.

Both US trials are trailing behind China's CanSino Biological which, in partnership with the Beijing Institute of Biotechnology, has completed phase one trials on humans and is now conducting phase two trials on a much larger group of people.



The potential breakthroughs come with researchers around the globe engaging in unprecedented levels of collaboration in the hunt for a cure, which began for all of them when Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the virus after mapping it in January.

Dr Arturo Casadevall from Johns Hopkins University said that internationally, "all scientists have become COVID-19 scientists. "This has become an all-hands effort," he said.

The level of effort globally is underscored by the revelation that the secretive Israel Institute for Biological Research, which normally works on developing defences against chemical and biological threats, has been re-tasked to researching COVID-19.

In Germany, biopharmaceutical company CureVac has developed a double dose vaccine for rabies that it hopes could be adapted to protect against coronavirus infection.

The mRNA rabies vaccine tricks the body into making more of the proteins and spreads it to different parts of the body, which allows a smaller amount to be used. CureVac has the capacity to produce 10 million doses within three months if trials are successful.



In England trials were already under way on a chimpanzee vaccine that Oxford University researchers hope could provide the way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first phase of testing on healthy adults started this month, with elderly patients next in line followed by a 5000-person test likely to be done in six months.

But it would still take 12 months in total to get the virus manufactured to scale to be used in the community, they said. The chimp vaccine was one of three Oxford projects that have received $A40 million so far.

The Queen Mary BioEnterprises Innovation Centre will use Hvivo's private East London laboratory, to test a vaccine on 24 volunteers.

Chinese firms have funded the study of injecting the 0C43 and 229E strains of coronavirus, which causes a mild respiratory illness, to see if they provide protection against COVID-19. "If it works on our little virus, it is very likely to work in the real world," Professor John Oxford, of the Queen Mary University of London, told The Times.

Originally published as Aussie boffins in the global hunt for coronavirus vaccine