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Coronavirus, part four: the Australian scientists who could beat it

Mar 26, 2020 • 14m 10s

A team of Australian scientists are working around the clock to find a vaccine against coronavirus, and they’re on the verge of a breakthrough. Today, Rick Morton on the race to find a vaccine.

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Coronavirus, part four: the Australian scientists who could beat it

190 • Mar 26, 2020

Coronavirus, part four: the Australian scientists who could beat it

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Every day this week we’re covering a different aspect of the coronavirus. Today, we speak to Rick Morton about the race to find a vaccine.

This is part four: The Australian scientists who could beat coronavirus.

RUBY:

Rick, six weeks ago you spoke to some Australian scientists at the University of Queensland and they were just at the very beginning of their research into a vaccine at that point. Can you tell me a little bit about the team?

RICK:

Yeah. So the team is led by Professor Paul Young, who's at the molecular biology and chemistry school in University of Queensland. And they've got about 18 other team members. So there's 20 of them. It's not a huge number of people, but they are some of the smartest people in vaccine science going around.

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

And this is a story that is so remarkable in terms of the technology and the man hours and the woman that was involved. I mean, they have been working 24/7, basically without a day off since then.

They could, in theory, produce a vaccine from start to finish so that is from the identification of a new virus, to the first human clinical trials in 16 weeks, which is unheard of. You know, that is a crazy timetable. And so they knew that all of this stuff was kind of on paper. They knew they could do it. They just had to kind of buckle up and get in there and start the work.

RUBY:

Rick, when you first spoke to this team, what was that interview like?

RICK:

I mean, they're a team of professionals, right? And this is their job. Paul Young was very matter of fact, he's saying, well, this is what we do. This is what we prepared for.

Archival tape -- Rick:

I guess ambitious, is it, your current project in attempting to get a vaccine for the novel coronavirus?

Archival tape -- Paul Young:

Ambitious is certainly the word for it. But we’ve been planning for this for some time now… we have...

RICK:

And it was almost like they were being called to war because they knew that they were giving up this time with their families. They knew that they were giving up their weekends.

Archival tape -- Paul Young:

Up till now it’s late night working and weekends as well, so it is a constant run in the lab at the moment.

RICK:

And I asked him about that. I’m like, well how does that feel in his life? Well, we know it's you know, we know it's for a short period of time.

Archival tape -- Paul Young:

Absolutely and the speed with which the global health community is responding to this is unprecedented...

RICK:

So when I first spoke to them. They had kind of notions that they might be out to do this, but they really hadn't started the work properly yet. They’d only been in there for a couple of days. And so, you know, it could've gone either way. It could have gone either way.

RUBY:

So a lot has happened since that first phone call. The virus has spread across the world. Infections are growing every day. And we've started to shut down huge sections of society. Where is the team at now in the quest to develop this vaccine?

RICK:

Well they actually exceeded their own expectations, this team. I mean, within three weeks of starting work, they had found, what they call, the candidate vaccine, and basically that means that that is their pick for a vaccine that could work.

So what happened was they had a technology where it's called a molecular clamp and it's a patented technology. And this technology essentially allows different parts of the synthetic virus, a fake virus, if you will, to be manipulated by this molecular clamp.

And ironically, the very thing that gives it its name, the coronavirus, the crown is the thing they can turn against the virus because this virus is surrounded by, what looks like, a crown of thorns and these little kind of barbed arrows and when they get in the human body, the way that they bind to the host is by kind of shooting off the surface of the virus and into the the particular gene or protein in the human body.

So this molecular clamp, they know in theory, could be used to hold that barb in place - to stop it from firing off into the host cell. And essentially what that does is it allows the human body to recognise that this is a bad thing in the body and to fight it with an immune response without actually making any active part of the virus that could harm us. So, it's an incredibly clever and deceptively simple idea that they've come up with.

RUBY:

So they’ve actually got a potential vaccine. What are the next steps?

RICK:

So once they've got their pick for a vaccine, they have to start doing animal studies and animal testing. They have to seed it in a live cell, which basically means plant it in a live cell. So they used the frozen ovary cells of Chinese hamsters, which are a cousin of the guinea pig, to get them to this lab in Melbourne in Clayton, which is kind of co-run by the CSIRO and CSL, which is a vaccine manufacturer. And so they're now going to be starting to make batches of this vaccine down there that can be used in animal testing studies.

And for reasons that are perhaps obvious they don’t give a lot of detail about what’s involved, but essentially usually these things involve monkeys or macaques because they've got very similar genetic makeup to humans. But very quickly now we're ready, we're almost ready, to go to human trials, which will begin around June.

RUBY:

So you're saying we could be doing human trials in Australia by June - does that mean the Australian team could be the first in the world to bring this vaccine to market?

RICK:

t's possible. In fact, you know, they're looking very likely at the moment that they might be the first. But there is essentially a global race to find a vaccine.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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Archival tapes -- unidentified reporters:

“Every second is critical for scientists battling Coronavirus, but now there’s a new hope for a vaccine.”

“Australian researchers say they’ve successfully mapped the human body’s immune responses to Coronavirus in a patient.”

“The initial stages of clinical trials are already underway in China, Europe, and the US.”

“Volunteer Jennifer Haller was the first person in the world to be inoculated as part of a safety test, though with at least 41 vaccines in development around the world, there’s a very good chance at least one of them will work.”

RUBY:

Rick, we're talking about the race to find a vaccine for coronavirus. Can you tell me about the different approaches that are being taken by different research teams?

RICK:

It's quite important to note that because there are as many ways to make a vaccine as there are days of the week. And, you know, the Australians have a completely revolutionary approach with the molecular clamp, which doesn't require any live virus at all.

Now, the Americans are using what is essentially a fake particle, a nanoparticle wrapped in an organic fatty layer, which is the viruses are all covered in a lipid fat layer and they're using messenger RNA and that combination to kind of provoke the human immune system, which is what vaccines do. So that's another completely different technology.

And the Chinese are using type 5 adenovirus, which is a very common, mostly harmless, relatively harmless, I should say, virus in animals. And they're swapping out the genetic information with the transgene. So basically pumping in a coded message that they want into the middle of this relatively harmless virus and then using that as a vaccine to again provoke the immune system in the human patient.

So three very different technologies. And the important thing to note about that is depending on which one wins and who gets there first, that will change where this thing is manufactured and how quickly it can be manufactured and how many doses we can get off the production floor in a certain period of time, because they've all got their own drawbacks. They've all got their own advantages.

The Chinese will probably get there relatively soon, but they tend to do that, how do I put this delicately… by cutting a few corners when it comes to the medical research. There's no doubt that the vaccine may well be effective, but they can do tests in human subjects sooner without some of the necessary hurdles that you'll find in other countries around the world, like Australia, in America.

And I'm actually speaking to a whole bunch of experts this week to find out exactly where we are in the global race for a vaccine and its manufacturing for this weekend's Saturday Paper. So hopefully we'll be able to answer some of those questions.

RUBY:

Is there a risk then that this competition means that the process could be rushed and what would the consequences of that be?

RICK:

It's a good question. And yes, that is always a possibility. In fact, you know, we've got cases in around the world where, you know, the swine flu vaccine, there were some production errors in that vaccine that had been recalled by the French, I think they recalled eight hundred thousand doses and the Canadians did as well.

So, you know, you don't want to rush these things. And the people working on them are incredibly cautious human beings. They’re not ones prone to kind of aberrations of hope or optimism. They're very cautious about what they do. But the world needs this, right? And so there is a balancing act between how quickly we need to get the population, or a lot of the population, vaccinated versus the testing that needs to be done to make it right.

RUBY:

So, Rick, once the vaccine has been developed and approved, how long do you think it'll be before people can actually get it?

RICK:

That depends on whether we pull off the astounding trick that is parallel processing, which essentially means that if we can manufacture at the same time that the trials are being done, which is the University of Queensland's aim, they want this thing to be essentially stockpiled while the trials are being completed so that the moment it clears the final test in human subjects, we've got batches of this vaccine ready to go. That would be a phenomenal outcome. But even so, that's, you know, minimum nine months away, although Paul Young said a couple of days ago that it wouldn't be before a year. So, you know, we've still got a year of this thing to ride out with to get a year of the economic consequences. We've got a year of the health consequences.

So it's going to be a tough twelve months. It's going to be really difficult for a lot of people. And I think there's a lot of hope placed on these vaccines. And I think the hope comes in not necessarily that we're going to magic this thing away, but it comes in the fact that these are really incredibly smart people who have broken land speed records when it comes to developing vaccines. We have never in human history created a candidate vaccine in three weeks. It has not been done. That's where the hope comes into it. I mean, we are working faster than we ever thought possible, but it's still going to require everyone else to wait it out because this thing isn't going anywhere for at least 12 months.

RUBY:

Rick, thank you so much for talking to me and really looking forward to reading your piece in The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

Thank you, Ruby.

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RUBY:

And an update on the latest coronavirus measures introduced by the government:

The Prime Minister has announced that Australia is moving to stage 2 restrictions.

From today, a number of businesses including beauty salons, amusement parks and auction houses will be required to close. Shopping centres will remain open, but food courts will be restricted to take away only.

Outdoor personal training sessions will be limited to 10 people, while weddings will be limited to 5 people - including the couple and the celebrant.

Funerals will be limited to a maximum of 10 people.

Supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, petrol stations, food delivery and bottle shops will remain open.

The WA government has announced that Rottnest Island will be used as a quarantine zone to house 800 Australians who will arrive on board a cruise ship today. The passengers will spend 14 days in self-isolation on the island.

And the NSW and federal governments are blaming each other for the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle in which nearly 3,000 passengers disembarked even though there were signs of coronavirus on the ship.

133 passengers have tested positive for the virus and that number is expected to rise significantly. Ruby Princess passengers account for 1 in 8 of all NSW coronaviruses cases.

Tomorrow on 7am, part five of our series on coronavirus will cover what the pandemic has exposed about our politics.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

Teams of researchers are working around the clock to try and develop a vaccine against coronavirus. In Australia, a group of scientists at the University of Queensland are on the verge of a breakthrough. Today, Rick Morton on the race to find a vaccine.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app.

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190: Coronavirus, part four: the Australian scientists who could beat it