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Coronavirus: Scientists in Australia begin testing two potential vaccines

Trials on ferrets ‘a critical milestone in fight against Covid-19’, researchers say

Chris Baynes
Thursday 02 April 2020 14:40 BST
US scientists begin study for Covid-19 vaccine

Researchers in Australia have begun testing two potential coronavirus vaccines in what they described as a “critical milestone” in efforts to bring the pandemic under control.

The country’s national science agency has commenced the first stage of pre-clinical trials of vaccines developed by the University of Oxford and US company Inovio Pharmaceuticals.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is carrying out the trials at high-containment biosecurity labs near Melbourne. The tests involve injecting the vaccines into ferrets, which have been shown to be susceptible to Covid-19.

Scientists around the world are involved in fast-paced efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine, with the first human trial taking place in the US last month after skipping a stage of animal testing.

However, CSIRO said its tests would be the first comprehensive pre-clinical trials on animals, and it emphasised that these tests are “very important” if the vaccine is to be rolled out.

The first phase of the trials is expected to take about three months, with human trials of Oxford’s vaccine candidate also set to begin in the UK in the next few weeks.

CSIRO’s testing will cover both efficacy and an evaluation of the best way to administer the vaccine for better protection, including an intra-muscular injection and a nasal spray.

The University of Oxford said its tests, involving up to 510 volunteers in the Thames Valley region, would “provide valuable information on the safety aspects of the vaccine, as well as its ability to generate an immune response against the virus”.

CSIRO’s director of health, Rob Grenfell, said any resulting vaccine would not be available to the public before late next year.

“We’re still sticking to the optimistic 18 months for delivery of vaccine to the general consumers,” he said. “Now this, of course, may change. There’s a lot of technical challenges that we’re having to go through.”

Dr Grenfell said scientists are working at a “remarkable” pace, reaching the pre-clinical testing stage in about eight weeks. The process usually takes one to two years.

CSIRO’s chief executive, Larry Marshall, said: “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.”

The Australian agency was the first research organisation outside China to successfully develop a lab-grown version of the virus, enabling pre-clinical studies on Covid-19 as a result.

In February, its scientists confirmed that ferrets reacted to the coronavirus because they share with humans a particular receptor on their respiratory cells to which the virus binds itself.

“If we can stop that virus binding to the ferret receptors in the respiratory system, there’s a very good chance [the vaccine] will work in humans,” Dr Grenfell said.

The first human trial of a vaccine against the coronavirus began last month in Seattle, where 45 young and healthy volunteers are to receive different doses of jabs co-developed by the US National Institutes of Health and drug firm Moderna. Officials said it will take between a year and 18 months to know if the vaccine will work.

The European Medicines Agency, which licenses medication in the European Union, said it has had discussions with developers of 12 potential Covid-19 vaccines. Two have already entered phase-one clinical trials.

Israel has also begun testing a coronavirus vaccine prototype on rodents at its biochemical defence laboratory, according to Reuters.

Other scientists are trialling existing drugs used to treat conditions such as Ebola, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis in order to establish if they could be used against the coronavirus.

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