Podcast Tracks Australia’s Quest For a COVID-19 Vaccine

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22 June 2020

Pictured: University of Queensland's Senior Research Lead Dr Keith Chappell and Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) Professor Trent Munro speaking to MTPConnect's Chief Operating Officer Stuart Dignam for the MTPConnect podcast.

In February 2020, the MTPConnect Podcast welcomed Professor Trent Munro to the microphone to discuss his team’s early work on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

Professor Munro and his colleagues from the University of Queensland’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) and the CSIRO had been asked by international partners to develop the vaccine at unprecedented speed, using their patented molecular clamp technology.

Back then, we were still talking about an outbreak rather than a pandemic (the World Health Organization’s formal pandemic declaration didn’t come until 11 March 2020) and with only 15 cases, Australian’s were just starting to discover the implications of this new infectious disease.

Fast forward to June 2020, and as global cases soared to nearly 9 million, we checked in with Trent and his colleague Dr Keith Chappell who is project co-lead with Professor Paul Young, on the progress of their vaccine candidate.

The UQ research team is the only Australian organisation backed by the Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). They have also signed a deal with Australian biotech giant CSL to manufacture up to 100 million doses of their vaccine, if and when development and trials prove successful. 

Professor Munro says that the backing from CEPI and strong support from the Queensland and Australian governments, along with corporate support and the generosity of the public, have been essential to his team’s promising progress in the race to develop a vaccine.

“When we developed the plan back in March, we had this great financial backing from CEPI that we were going to need to make decisions really fast, as this was going to cost a lot of money,” Professor Munro explains.

“We have been absolutely amazed by that top end of town support from folks like BHP and the lotto here in Queensland, amongst a whole range of companies, and that has been great, but we have also had kids dip into their piggybank and send us money.

“That shows what the public can do to impact scientific research and all of those dollars are going to make a huge difference to what we can do.

“It’s been humbling to see the contributions that Australians have made to research.”

Dr Chappell gave us an update on how their small but mighty team is progressing its research towards creating a vaccine that could be available in 2021, including the process of recruiting healthy volunteers to begin clinical trials.

“So we’ve got some really strong data [that has] come back showing that this vaccine in animals is both safe and that it induces a strong antibody response that can neutralise the virus, and they were key findings that led us to believe that the vaccine should work,” Dr Chappell added.

“We’ve also got a range of protection studies running currently… we’ve been given approval to recruit for Phase I clinical trials, but before we start dosing, we need those animal protection studies to come back in the way that we hope they will.”

Professor Munro also discusses the lockdown measures implemented to minimise the transmission of the virus and that created a range of challenges for the vaccine research team.

“We didn’t know what stage lockdown we were going to get to, how we were going to keep the lab open, through to just trying to get samples shipped around, even getting to things Melbourne or Sydney became incredibly difficult, let alone trying to ship samples and get supplies internationally.”   

You can hear more from Professor Munro and Dr Chappell by listening to the MTPConnect Podcast, here.

You can also learn more about the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on Australia’s medical technology, biotechnology and pharmaceutical sector through MTPConnect’s new COVID-19 Impact Reports, available to download here.