Govt funding to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine research

Friday, 27 March, 2020

Govt funding to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine research

A funding injection of up to $17 million could help cut the timeline for an effective vaccine for COVID-19 by six months.

The Queensland Government will allocate $10 million from its Advance Queensland strategy and the Australian Government has pledged $3 million to the project, led by The University of Queensland’s (UQ) School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences. UQ has been tasked by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, and the new funding is an important extension of CEPI’s ongoing financial support.

The researchers used ‘molecular clamp’ technology, invented by UQ scientists and patented by UniQuest, to create their first vaccine candidate in the laboratory in just three weeks. The team’s approach, using their patented MCT, has been described as one of the most promising globally to develop the vaccine by Nobel Laureate and immunologist Professor Peter Doherty.

UQ Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj said the new funding will provide additional critical support to UQ and partners such as the Peter Doherty Institute for Immunity and Infection (Doherty Institute) and CSIRO in the analysis of vaccine efficacy and their drive to commence clinical trials on the vaccine as early as July in Queensland.

“Importantly, the funding will also support advancing large-scale manufacture with industry partners both locally and overseas,” Professor Høj said.

“We know the importance of having a vaccine to protect against influenza, and it is vital for us to be ready to prevent future escalations of COVID-19.”

Innovation Minister Kate Jones said the announcement could reduce by six months the time it would take to deliver an effective vaccine, which would otherwise take 18 months at the earliest.

“If they can achieve this, it could mean there will be a vaccine available for emergency use among healthcare workers and vulnerable populations in early 2021,” she said.

UQ’s Dr Keith Chappell said the ability to manufacture the vaccine and run the early-phase clinical trials simultaneously meant doses would be ready to go the moment the vaccine was approved for use, and would not compromise necessary safety studies.

“Accelerating our work to find a safe and effective vaccine brings us a step closer to translating a fundamental research discovery through to the full-scale manufacture for the global populace.”

The Paul Ramsay Foundation has announced a grant of up to $3.5 million for the project, conditional upon UQ securing another $6.5 million to reach a total of $20 million from government and other sources. The a2 Milk Company meanwhile last month donated NZ$500,000 each to UQ and the Doherty Institute.

Separate to this, the Australian Government has announced $8 million for research into antiviral therapies, $5 million for clinical trials to better treat and manage COVID-19 patients with severe acute respiratory distress and $2.6 million for the Doherty Institute to fund four projects on testing, pathology and development of a framework and protocols. The funding is part of the government’s $2.4 billion Coronavirus National Health Plan, funded from the Medical Research Future Fund.

The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) has applauded the funding announcements, claiming they provide a real step towards making resources available to help Australia’s top scientists contribute to the COVID-19 relief effort.

“This is the kind of focused effort we need to begin this immediate, critical work on new therapies, treatments and testing,” said AAMRI President Professor Jonathan Carapetis.

The Doherty Institute in particular has welcomed the new funding, which has been directed at four different strategies: the development of a new, simpler Australian coronavirus pathology test; the development of new testing protocols to enable more individuals to be tested simultaneously; development of a deployment framework for newly approved coronavirus serology tests; and assessing how and when to use serology testing.

The $8 million in competitive funding for antiviral research will first be given as $3 million to test up to 10 antivirals, and then a further $5 million to rapidly progress the most promising candidates to clinical practice. The clinical trial funding for those who suffer acute respiratory distress is aimed at looking after the most vulnerable in our community, including the elderly and those who are immunocompromised.

“I’m pleased to see these funds getting fast-tracked to the scientists who have the potential to make a real difference in what is now a global health emergency,” Prof Carapetis said.

Image caption: A model of a clamped vaccine antigen.

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