COVID-19 vaccine testing commences Down Under

Friday, 03 April, 2020

COVID-19 vaccine testing commences Down Under

Australian research into COVID-19 appears to have turned a corner this week, with two separate groups commencing vaccine testing.

On Thursday, CSIRO announced that it has commenced its first stage of testing potential vaccines. The testing, expected to take three months, is underway at CSIRO’s high-containment biosecurity facility, the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) in Geelong.

Last year, CSIRO partnered with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global group that aims to derail epidemics by speeding up the development of vaccines, and was engaged shortly afterwards to focus on the virus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. In consultation with the World Health Organization, CEPI has now identified vaccine candidates from the University of Oxford and Inovio Pharmaceuticals to undergo the first preclinical trials at CSIRO, with further candidates likely to follow.

CSIRO is testing the COVID-19 vaccine candidates for efficacy, but also evaluating the best way to give the vaccine for better protection, including an intra-muscular injection and innovative approaches like a nasal spray. The work is being led by AAHL Director Professor Trevor Drew, who said, “We have been studying SARS CoV-2 since January and getting ready to test the first vaccine candidates as soon as they are available.

“We are carefully balancing operating at speed with the critical need for safety in response to this global public health emergency.”

The latest milestone builds on CSIRO’s growing work to tackle COVID-19, which has included scaling up other potential vaccine candidates at its biologics production facility in Melbourne. CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said, “Whether it’s at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) or at our state-of-the-art biologics manufacturing facility, we will keep working until this viral enemy is defeated.”

One day later, South Australian researchers working with Oracle cloud technology and vaccine technology developed by local company Vaxine announced that they are testing their own vaccine candidate against COVID-19.

The team is headed by Nikolai Petrovsky, Flinders University Professor and Research Director at Vaxine. His team has tapped Oracle for technical collaboration, access to an expanded research community and cloud infrastructure that helped enable the rapid design of the novel COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

“The vaccine has progressed into animal testing in the US and, once we confirm it is safe and effective, will then be advanced into human trials,” said Prof Petrovsky, though he stressed that expectations shouldn’t be elevated until all testing is completed.

He added that the latest cloud-based technology provided by Oracle enabled the team to “dramatically speed up our ability to analyse the COVID-19 virus and use this information to design the vaccine candidate”.

“As soon as the genomic sequence of COVID-19 became available in January, we immediately used this, combined with our previous experience in developing a SARS coronavirus vaccine, to characterise the key viral attachment molecule called the spike protein,” Prof Petrovsky said.

“We used computer models of the spike protein and its human receptor, ACE2, to identify how the virus was infecting human cells, and then were able to design a vaccine to block this process.”

Flinders University Associate Professor Dimitar Sajkov, a respiratory physician in South Australia, has been involved in conducting previous human trials of the team’s pandemic vaccines and hopes to similarly lead clinical trials of this new COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

“The team has exploited the very latest technologies, including AI, advanced manufacturing and cloud computing to accelerate vaccine design, shaving years off normal development timeframes,” Prof Sajkov said.

“We achieved great results with Vaxine’s swine flu vaccine developed during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, where we commenced clinical trials of a vaccine within 3 months of discovery of the virus. We hope to achieve similar results with their COVID-19 vaccine candidate when it is ready for human testing.”

Image caption: CSIRO is testing the COVID-19 vaccine candidates for efficacy.

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