As health workers race around the clock to save lives in the community, researchers across the globe are leaving no stone unturned in the race to discover a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection from coronavirus.
With innovation a cornerstone of Queensland’s economy for more than 20 years, it’s no surprise that the state is leading the way in developing a potential vaccine for COVID-19.
The University of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences is one of only six in the world and only one in Australia tasked by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) to draw on its unique platform technology to bring forward the development of a vaccine.
In support of the research, the Paul Ramsay Foundation, together with the Australian and Queensland Government — through the Advance Queensland initiative have announced joint funding of $16.5 million.
The funding will allow researchers at The University of Queensland to accelerate manufacture of the vaccine in collaboration with its partners, the CSIRO and the Doherty Institute — which could reduce the timeline for an effective vaccine by six months.
We sat down with one of the lead researchers, Professor Paul Young to find out more about how their journey to developing a coronavirus vaccine came about.
First off, can you please tell us about the moment when you started this research?
The first point to make is that this has been a team journey. Having said that, the idea behind this work comes from a senior post-doctoral scientist in my laboratory, Dr Keith Chappell who had been working on a similar problem during a post-doctoral position he had in Madrid, Spain. He came back to my laboratory in 2011 and, although working on a different project, we discussed the possibility of him continuing work on the issue of constraining viral proteins in a form that would make them more suitable as vaccine candidates. It was during this period he came up with the foundation of what we now refer to as the Molecular Clamp, and along with another scientist in the group, Dr Dan Watterson we further developed the principle.
How did the team come together?
Both Keith and Dan came to my lab as undergraduate students in 2002 and progressed through their Honours and PhD studies together with me. Both have had post-doctoral periods in other laboratories, but then returned to our group. Professor Trent Munro joined us last year as part of our CEPI funded program as Program Director and brings extensive industry experience to the team from the time he was running a large group in a US biologics company. The rest of the magnificent team comprise talented post-docs, research assistants and PhD students who have joined the group as we grew with increased external funding.
Has this been any different to previous research?
The bench level COVID-19 vaccine work is similar in many ways to the research that our laboratory typically undertakes, but the overall program is very different. The issue that separates it is the singular focus on delivery of a vaccine in the shortest time possible. There is no time to explore interesting research side-roads, as we work towards each milestone along the path of vaccine development that takes us to the next stage. The logistics of keeping all of this work on track, and in partnership with our collaborative partners, takes considerable time and effort.
Can you explain to us what a typical day is during this research phase?
Long days and lots of meetings! Early starts, late finishes at work, some time with family and then back to my home office to continue, usually till after mid-night. Many of our evenings are now taken up with teleconferences with colleagues overseas, discussing strategies and progress. This is true for everyone in the lab. Since the release of the virus sequence in early January, the team has been working long hours every day to get us to where we are now — testing our lead vaccine in animals. The team has simply been magnificent.
Can you tell us bit more about the technology you have developed?
The Molecular Clamp is a novel way of locking synthetic versions of viral surface proteins — for coronaviruses these are referred to as Spike proteins, into the same shape that appears on the virus surface. This is important so that our vaccine teaches the immune system to respond in exactly the right way to this surface protein when it encounters a real infection and results in the virus being killed.
What will this funding mean?
This generous funding will ensure that we and our partners will be able to accelerate manufacture and development of our vaccine candidate in as abbreviated a timeline as possible, without sacrificing safety and efficacy.
Do you stop and consider how many lives you could be saving?
This regularly enters our conversations, with daily updates of the virus spread around the globe and the associated deaths appearing on the many dashboards set up online. But the team remains focused on the job at hand — progressing the vaccine through each stage of development.
Do you consider yourself a hero?
Absolutely not. Most of us entered our profession to make a difference and to follow a passion for discovery science. If anything, we feel privileged to be in a position to contribute at this level.
What will developing a vaccine this mean for Queensland?
Queensland is, and has been, a hub of vaccine research and activity for some time. Just think of Gardasil, Vaxxas and a large number of research groups in many institutions developing and trialling vaccines against a wide range of viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases. Success for this COVID-19 vaccine will continue that legacy and hopefully build greater momentum for future support in this space that builds on local capacity and expertise.
And how did University of Queensland become one of six organisations backed by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)?
We had already secured CEPI funding in 2018 to adapt our technology to a rapid response vaccine pipeline here in Australia in partnership with The Doherty Institute, ANU and CSIRO. The funding we secured was for a three-year program of research beginning in 2019. So we have been in partnership with CEPI for more than a year and they knew our work well. We were one of the first three groups to be approached to trigger vaccine development when this coronavirus emerged as a significant threat.
What will you do to celebrate if you are successful in developing a vaccine?
Get some sleep! But first, maybe a celebratory cheer with the team that will have made it all possible.