By Liam Mannix
A factory in Melbourne has started producing a test dose of a potential coronavirus vaccine which scientists will begin testing on animals this week.
The test vaccine was developed in just six weeks by University of Queensland researchers using world-first molecular clamp technology invented in Australia.
The blueprint for the test vaccine was sent to a CSIRO manufacturing lab in Clayton on Thursday night. On Friday morning vaccine production began.
The University of Queensland team say they have not perfected their design yet, and more tweaking will be done over the next week.
The batch being brewed at Clayton is merely the first test dose, a process done in part to trial the factory’s systems.
Nevertheless, it shows the incredible progress made by the researchers – less than two months after the first recorded coronavirus death, a test vaccine is in production.
After emerging in Wuhan in December, COVID-19 has spread rapidly around the world.
More than 76,000 people have been infected, including 15 in Australia, and more than 2245 killed so far.
The University of Queensland team began work on their vaccine on January 11, when the first coronavirus genome – its DNA blueprint – was uploaded to the internet by Chinese scientists.
“We did not need the virus itself. All we needed was the sequence,” said Professor Paul Young.
They quickly identified a section of the virus, known as a spike protein, they would need to target.
To do this, they are using “molecular clamp” technology, an invention developed at the Queensland University by Dr Keith Chappell, Dr Daniel Watterson and Professor Young seven years ago.
The clamps are designed to hold the complex, changing the shape of the spike protein so the human immune system can get a good look at it – and learn to kill it.
“It is a fascinating and quite amazing technology,” said Upulie Divisekera, a molecular biologist at the University of Auckland who is not involved in the project.
The CSIRO’s Clayton factory started manufacturing a pilot dose on Friday morning.
This is done in huge fermenters filled with cells. The cells read DNA instructions and produce the proteins that will go into the vaccine.
“This is the first candidate of possibly many,” said Professor George Lovrecz, research team leader at CSIRO’s manufacturing division.
Once the team’s vaccine is finished, it will be tested on animals, first for safety and then for effectiveness.
If the vaccine is both safe and effective, human trials can begin.