Australia markets closed

Australian scientists are developing vaccines and tests for the coronavirus. Here's what we know so far.

Sharon Masige
  • Scientists at the CSIRO have began testing two potential coronavirus vaccines.
  • We created a list of Australian universities that are also creating vaccines and tests to address the coronavirus pandemic.
  • These include Monash University, the University of Queensland, Flinders University and the University of Sydney.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Aussie scientists are in the race to find a vaccine for the coronavirus.

In April, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) said it had begun the first stage of testing two potential coronavirus vaccines.

It came after the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – a global group that finances the development of vaccines against infectious diseases – tapped CSIRO in January to start working on a vaccine for the SARS CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 (coronavirus) disease.

The CSIRO tests are being done at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong and are expected to take three months. The researchers will test the vaccines for efficacy and will look at the best ways to administer the vaccine, whether that be intramuscular injections or nasal spray.

"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," CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said in a statement.

The CSIRO isn't the only organisation in Australia developing vaccines for the coronavirus. Many Australian universities have been working to address the coronavirus pandemic, either developing vaccines or creating tests to determine those most at risk of the disease.

University of Queensland

The University of Queensland (UQ) was asked by CEPI to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. In March, the university received $17 million in funding, including $10 million from the Queensland Government, $3 million from the Australian federal government and $3.5 million from the Paul Ramsay Foundation to fast track the vaccine.

UQ vice-chancellor and president Professor Peter Høj said in a statement the funding would provide added support to UQ as well as its partners the CSIRO and Doherty Institute analyse the vaccine's efficacy. It is hoped clinical trials on the vaccine begin as early as July.

"Importantly, the funding will also support advancing large-scale manufacture with industry partners both locally and overseas," Høj said. "We know the importance of having a vaccine to protect against influenza, and it is vital for us to be ready to prevent future escalations of COVID-19."

University of Queensland head of the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, Paul Young told the ABC there are many versions of vaccines and approaches that can all be as effective.

"It is not a race between vaccine producers, it is a race against this particular virus," he said.

Flinders University

Flinders University researchers are using Oracle cloud technology and vaccine technology created by the company Vaxine, to test a coronavirus vaccine. The team is led by Flinders University Professor and Research Director at Vaxine, Nikolai Petrovsky.

"The vaccine has progressed into animal testing in the US and, once we confirm it is safe and effective, will then be advanced into human trials," Petrovsky said in a statement. He also emphasised that expectations shouldn't be high until all vaccines are complete.

Flinders University Associate Professor Dimitar Sajkov had been involved in previous human trials of the team's pandemic vaccines. He said the team garnered "great results" with Vaxine’s swine flu vaccine, which was created during that pandemic in 2009. He said they begun clinical trials of the swine flu vaccine within three months of discovering the virus.

"We hope to achieve similar results with their COVID-19 vaccine candidate when it is ready for human testing," Sajkov said.

The Flinders University team previously created a vaccine believed to be the first human drug in the world to be completely designed by artificial intelligence. It is undergoing trials in the US.

Monash University

Scientists at Monash University are repurposing technology they developed to create a test that pinpoints who is immune to the coronavirus. The test will also identify those who are still infectious and those at risk of developing a more severe form of the disease.

The initial technology was developed to test for a person's immunity to allergens and influenza.

The research team, led by Associate Professor Menno van Zelm and Professor Robyn O’Hehir, will get cell samples in April from colleagues in Melbourne as well as three coronavirus hotspots - China, Italy and New York. The test will look for differences in the blood of people with a mild case of the disease compared to those with severe cases. It aims to find biomarkers that can predict those who might need early medical intervention.

According to the ABC, the research team is looking for more funding so they can move the test on to patient trials.

University of Sydney

The University of Sydney is developing a biomarker blood test to determine how someone's immune system responds after they test positive to the coronavirus.

The test is being created – and fast-tracked – by Associate Professor Benjamin Tang together with the team at the University of Sydney's Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity.

"When our body is being attacked by the virus, the immune system gets switched on," Tang said in a statement. "When it gets switched on, it starts telling all the other immune cells to come and fight the virus. During that process, the immune system gives out a lot of dangerous signals and that is what we're measuring through this blood test."

The test will help doctors determine if a patient is at risk or not, giving information on whether their immune system may fail in the next 24 hours or if they are able to fight the virus. Doctors could then prioritise patients accordingly.

"It’s not enough just to know that they are infected, we need to know which patient you can send home and which patient you should admit to hospital, or which patient you need to refer to ICU," Tang said.

The university switched to online teaching, with employees also asked to work remotely, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.