Queensland researchers close in on coronavirus vaccine


Even in these challenging times, Queensland ingenuity is on display, as a team of researchers at the University of Queensland develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, COVID-19.

A team of 20 UQ scientists are working around the clock to develop the vaccine, as part of the University’s partnership with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

The researchers took just three weeks to create their first vaccine candidate in the laboratory, and have moved into a further development stage before formal pre-clinical testing.

Professor Peter Høj AC, UQ’s Vice-Chancellor and President, says the team has made considerable progress in line with the highly accelerated time frame of the rapid response program.

“There is still extensive testing to ensure that the vaccine candidate is safe and creates an effective immune response, but the technology and the dedication of these researchers means the first hurdle has been passed,” Professor Høj says.

Funded by a consortium of sovereign nations and private organisations, including the Australian government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the CEPI is an international foundation tasked with coordinating and developing new vaccines to prevent and contain infectious disease epidemics.

UQ entered a three-year partnership with the CEPI in January 2019 to develop the ‘molecular clamp’, a versatile vaccine platform invented by UQ scientists that allows for the rapid generation of new vaccines against multiple viral pathogens.

Dr Keith Chappell, from UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, says the molecular clamp technology has been key to the speedy development of a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

“The molecular clamp technology provides stability to the viral protein that is the primary target for our immune defence,” he explains.

“The technology has been designed as a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and animal viruses and has shown promising results in the laboratory targeting viruses such as influenza, Ebola, Nipah and MERS coronavirus.”

The next step is to produce the vaccine candidate on the larger scale needed for additional testing, to determine its effectiveness against the virus. The team will continue to work to their much-accelerated timetable to keep on track for investigational clinical testing after the middle of the year.

While UQ’s researchers – and other scientists around Australia and the world – continue to search for a COVID-19 vaccine, the rest of us are adapting to a new way of life, working from home and practicing social distancing in order to ‘flatten the curve’ of coronavirus cases.

“If COVID-19 were a startup, it may very well be an emerging giant,” says Queensland Chief Entrepreneur Leanne Kemp.

“The situation is already serious and could get worse quickly. Workers forced into quarantine but still having to carry on daily duties has put pressure on some industries and allowed others, such as remote SaaS [Software as a Service] companies, to flourish, which could also lead the bounce back in markets.

“Perhaps there is something in the lessons of startups in being able to pivot and persevere so that our systems adapt and thrive in this environment.”