Coronavirus: Scientists working around the clock to develop a vaccine, save the world

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From left, Paul Young, Keith Chappell and Trent Munro at Queensland University. 


COVID-19 has put millions of lives at stake. Scientists have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Yet, no vaccine has been discovered yet to cure or prevent this pandemic virus from spreading and infecting human body.

However,  the Weekend Australia news portal has given us hopes today when reported that 3 Australian Scientists, Paul Young, Keith Chappell and Trent Munr are close to develope a vaccine. 

Keith Chappell came up with the idea to hijack the virus’s own fearsome infectious properties with revolutionary “molecular clamp” technology, and since January he has worked around the clock with colleagues Paul Young and Trent Munro to put it into a jab to inoculate the ­population.

After experimenting with 250 different formulations, they have settled on a candidate vaccine, S-Spike, and this is being tested on laboratory mice at the University of Queensland as a prelude to human trials by mid-year. There is every chance the team will be the first in the world to bring it to market.

“In terms of getting a vaccine that we think will work, we think we are already there,” said Dr Chappell, 38.

“But getting a vaccine that’s available for seven billion people on the planet means … we have to move to scale, and that’s a very different proposition.

“It’s all about how much risk we are willing to accept.”

He stressed he was talking about commercial risk, not jeopardising the safety and efficacy of the vaccine because that was non-negotiable.

Yet the scale of the unfolding crisis here and abroad calls for ­extraordinary steps to telescope into months the proving and ­development processes that typically take years for a new drug.

Leveraging the experience of Professor Munro, 44, in biotech in the US, they are already negotiating with regulators, including the federal government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration and the European Medical Association, to run the gauntlet of ­approvals while the finetuning continues in their lab and at the University of Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

The UQ team met TGA officials on Friday to nut out how the dual-track approach would work.

As Dr Chappell revealed, walking The Weekend Australian through their progress in the cluttered labs in the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology on UQ’s St Lucia campus, the vaccine was on track to be available by the end of the year, well ahead of the timetable flagged this week by Scott Morrison when he unveiled multi-billion-dollar funding packages for research and the public health response, and to underpin a flagging economy.

Hard decisions on the rollout were pending. “Do we produce a lot of the dose already, given the results we have got?” Dr Chappell asked rhetorically. “Or do we wait until after we have shown it works in the first group of people before we move to larger scale ­production?

“I think the size of this epidemic means that we need to bring manufacturing forward so that we are running the manufacture and the clinical trials in parallel so that the moment we have success in the clinic, we have doses that are ready to go.

“This will allow us to provide protection for the most vulnerable people in Australia — the elderly and all the hospital workers, ­because they are going to be overrun. These are the people who ­really need this insurance policy.”

Crucially, the researchers know with certainty that the vaccine works on coronavirus — not COVID-19, but its close relative, MERS, the lethal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. With a fatality rate of 30 per cent, it is many times more dangerous than COVID-19, though thankfully far less contagious. Candidate vaccines for MERS and seasonal influenza using the molecular clamp had demonstrated powerful immune responses in animal studies before the new virus erupted out of China, said Professor Young, 64, head of UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences.

“It’s a tried and tested model for influenza infection and what we showed was that our vaccine completely oblates virus growth in animals that were challenged, an extremely potent response,” he said.

“We don’t believe it is going to be any more complicated than with influenza, in fact it’s a little less complicated … because overall the coronaviruses don’t drift in their mutation as much as influenza does;.”

Like most good ideas, the concept of the molecular clamp is ­deceptively simple. A virus is no more than a packet of malevolent genetic information that has one purpose in life: to find somewhere to lodge and replicate itself.

The surface of the COVID-19 virus bristles with so-called spike proteins, coiled like springs until they bind to a host cell.

The technology uses an ingenious lab-created polypeptide — a sequence of amino acids — to pin the spike protein in its tortile position so the body’s immune system can target it before the virus has a chance to activate. An adjuvant, or boosting agent, is added to the vaccine to stimulate the immune response.

Source: The Weekend Australia


Graduate with a Master of Mass Communication. 10 years working experience in the media and broadcasting.

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