Coronavirus: Australian scientists first to recreate deadly virus outside China

Scientists say lab-grown virus is ‘game changer’ in fight against illness

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 29 January 2020 13:00 GMT
Coronavirus: Foreign Office warns against travel to China as UK nationals are set to return

A team of scientists in Australia has become the first to grow coronavirus in a laboratory outside China – a move which will help researchers study the pathogen which has killed at least 130 people.

Scientists from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne grew the Wuhan coronavirus from a patient sample, and described the success as a “game changer”.

The virus isolate, which was grown in a cell culture, will provide international laboratories with crucial information to help combat the spread of the deadly illness.

“Chinese officials released the genome sequence of this novel coronavirus, which is helpful for diagnosis, however, having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities – it will be a game changer for diagnosis,” said Dr Julian Druce of the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

“The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Europe.”

The Doherty Institute-grown virus is expected to be used to generate an antibody test, which allows detection of the virus in patients who haven’t displayed symptoms and were therefore unaware they had the virus.

Dr Mike Catton, deputy director of the Doherty Institute said: “An antibody test will enable us to retrospectively test suspected patients so we can gather a more accurate picture of how widespread the virus is, and consequently, among other things, the true mortality rate.

“It will also assist in the assessment of effectiveness of trial vaccines.”

The virus was grown from a patient sample that arrived at the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) at the Doherty Institute on Friday, 24 January.

“We’ve planned for an incident like this for many, many years and that’s really why we were able to get an answer so quickly,” said Dr Catton.

He also credited the success to Australia’s network of laboratories and public health authorities effectively working together.

“We are very pleased at how it has come together and are glad we were able to respond quickly, which we will continue to do so.”

Meanwhile, Russia and China are working to develop a coronavirus vaccine and Beijing has handed over the genome of the virus to authorities in Moscow, a Russian diplomatic mission in China said on Wednesday.

The death toll in China from coronavirus rose to 132 on Wednesday with the number of confirmed cases now at almost 6,000.

“Russian and Chinese experts have begun developing a vaccine,” the Russian consulate in Guangzhou city said in a statement.

It was not clear if Russian and Chinese scientists were working together or separately, according to Reuters.

Russia, which has not had any confirmed cases of the virus, on Tuesday began screening all Russian tourists returning from China, the country’s national consumer health watchdog said on Wednesday.

“The Chinese side handed over the virus genome to Russia, which has allowed our scientists to rapidly develop express-tests that make it possible to identify the virus in the human body within two hours,” the consulate said in the statement.

Moscow has been in talks with Beijing about evacuating Russian nationals from Wuhan and Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, the consulate said.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered Russia’s consumer safety watchdog to draw up and present a plan to the government later on Wednesday on ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Russian authorities have closed some land border crossings to China in the Russian Far East until 7 February.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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