Last updated April 3, 2020 at 9:14 am
Vaccines to prevent COVID-19 are taking small steps closer as two enter early-stage animal trials being carried out by the CSIRO.
Why This Matters: The race to develop a vaccine is on, but it’ll likely still be 12 months before we see one.
The CSIRO have announced they are commencing initial testing of two potential vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19.
The initial testing in animals, which will take at least 3 months, will assess the vaccines for efficacy, and how they could be best administered. Approaches to be assessed include an intra-muscular injection and innovative approaches like a nasal spray.
While hopeful, there is no guarantee they will pass the trials.
Should the animal testing identify a successful vaccine candidate, they will then need to go through further series of trials to prove efficacy and safety in humans. It is expected that the full trial process will take at least 12 months.
“Beginning vaccine candidate testing at CSIRO is a critical milestone in the fight against COVID-19, made possible by collaboration both within Australia and across the globe,” says CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall.
The vaccine trials are being carried out at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory biosecurity facility, near Geelong.
Global collaboration to develop vaccines
The trials are part of a partnership between the CSIRO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global group that aims to derail epidemics by speeding up the development of vaccines. The organisations partnered in 2019 to prepare for future disease outbreaks.
In January, CEPI began working with the CSIRO to start working on the virus SARS CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19.
The vaccines being trialled by the CSIRO were developed by The University of Oxford in the UK, and Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc in the US. Other vaccine candidates may also be trialled as they are developed.
“We have been studying SARS CoV-2 since January and getting ready to test the first vaccine candidates as soon as they are available,” says Trevor Drew, who is leading CSIRO’s COVID-19 vaccine research.
“We are carefully balancing operating at speed with the critical need for safety in response to this global public health emergency.”
Australian expertise at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development
This work by the CSIRO included becoming the first research organisation outside of China to generate sufficient stock of the virus to enable pre-clinical studies and research on COVID-19. The virus used by the CSIRO to build this stock was originally isolated by Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute.
Then, in March 2020, CSIRO established a biological model to allow them to study the infection in a living animal. They found ferrets react to the virus that causes COVID-19, allowing scientists to study how the infection progresses and understand how a vaccine may work. The ferret models are now being used in the current vaccine trials.
Elsewhere, researchers at the University of Queensland became some of the first in the world to develop a potential target for a vaccine. That project is also supported by CEPI.
Tuberculosis vaccine also being trialled
The CSIRO trials are not the only potential vaccine trials occurring in Australia. Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute have announced a trial of whether the tuberculosis vaccine has an effect on COVID-19. The century-old vaccine will be tested in around 4000 healthcare workers around Australia, with hopes it may reduce the symptoms of COVID-19. It has previously shown to be effective against similar viruses, including reducing viral respiratory tract infections.
“This trial will allow the vaccine’s effectiveness against COVID-19 symptoms to be properly tested, and may help save the lives of our heroic frontline healthcare workers,” says Nigel Curtis, who is leading the tuberculosis vaccine trial.
The advantage of using a pre-existing vaccine is its proven safety in humans, with hopes this could allow it to be fast tracked to wider use. With protective equipment shortages being reported in hospitals around the country, the vaccine is hoped to provide some protection to vulnerable doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers. A number of these frontline workers have already been infected with the coronavirus, resulting in at least one death.
However, one of the challenges facing the race to develop a vaccine is the evolution of the virus itself. Studying the genomic sequence, researchers have found the virus is presently changing into a number of distinct ‘clusters’. It’s not yet known how or if this will affect potential vaccines.