Millions of doses: Inside QLD hunt for COVID killer


A UNIVERSITY of Queensland coronavirus vaccine could be in large-scale production by the September quarter.

Buoyed by the latest promising results in mice studies, UQ scientist Professor Trent Munro admitted having a vaccine in production before the end of the year was "incredibly ambitious", but that was the goal the UQ team had set itself.

The UQ researchers are among about 100 teams around the world working on vaccines to protect people against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which has killed 90 Australians and more than 218,000 people worldwide.


Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell and Professor Trent Munro are on the hunt for a coronavirus cure. Photo: Glenn Hunt
Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell and Professor Trent Munro are on the hunt for a coronavirus cure. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Professor Munro said scientists internationally were working with "an awful lot of collaboration" in the race to find a vaccine amid the worst pandemic in a century.

"People are sharing data faster than we've ever seen before," he said.

"Everyone's trying to move as fast as they can."

UQ scientists warn issues such as distribution, manufacturing it into vials and having enough data from human trials to receive regulatory approval would have to be worked out before people could start to be inoculated on a broadscale basis, with the elderly and frontline health workers likely to be prioritised.

"Our goal is to demonstrate scalability and to produce as many doses as we can and we've obviously done the calculations to think we can generate tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even potentially millions of doses," Professor Munro said.

"What happens with those doses, what kind of people are able to use those … all those questions remain.

"In the best-case scenario, the vaccine will still not be available for wide scale use until the first half of 2021."

Oxford University's Jenner Institute began human trials of a candidate vaccine last week.

Another experimental vaccine developed by scientists at the US National Institutes of Health and collaborators at biotechnology company Moderna was first tested in humans in mid-March.

The UQ project is considered among the most promising, one of a group of vaccines backed by the Norwegian-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

Professor Munro said the university's candidate vaccine, dubbed S-clamp, was on track to start human testing by July.

UQ yesterday announced "amazing" results from studies of the Queensland vaccine in mice.

Molecular virologist Keith Chappell, who played a key role in the development of the UQ vaccine, said mice produced a strong immune response when injected with the vaccine in trials at Melbourne's Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

When blood from the mice, containing antibodies produced in response to the vaccine, was then mixed with SARS-CoV-2 in a laboratory dish, the virus was killed.

Dr Chappell said the strength of the antibody response to the vaccine seen in mice was much higher than observed in samples from "recovered patients who have experienced the disease".

"That gives us a good indication that this vaccine should work," he said.




Explainer for UQ coronavirus vaccine
Explainer for UQ coronavirus vaccine


Professor Munro said the next step was to test whether the vaccine protected ferrets and hamsters from the novel coronavirus in studies in the Netherlands.

UQ has formed a partnership with Dutch company Viroclinics to trial the vaccine in its biosecurity laboratory.

"We've already shipped off our vaccine material to the Netherlands so that work's already underway," he said, adding the trials were expected to be completed in six to eight weeks.

Although the world has never had a vaccine to protect against a coronavirus, Professor Munro said "the data was pointing in the right direction".

He said promising work on vaccines against two other deadly types of coronavirus - sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) - stopped when the threat from those contagions "disappeared out of the public attention".

"A lot of the funding and efforts that were going into that dried up significantly," Professor Munro said.

He was upbeat talking about the UQ vaccine yesterday.

"We're on track," he said when asked about human trials starting by mid-year.

"Stay tuned for some further announcements."

Dr Chappell said the vaccine was expected to work against different strains of SARS-CoV-2, explaining that it did not evolve as quickly as the flu.

"We think we should provide broad spectrum protection against all strains that are around at the moment and should emerge in future," he said.






Originally published as Millions of doses: Inside QLD hunt for COVID killer