Fighting the pandemic: Melbourne test breakthrough

Local researchers have created a finger prick test that can reveal your level of immunity and establish whether you may need a COVID-19 booster shot.Image of  Burnet Institute blood test prototype

It’s world leading research.

And it’s being developed in laboratories across Melbourne.

Burnet Institute and The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity have teamed up to develop a finger prick test that, in less than 20 minutes, can determine whether you may need a COVID-19 booster top up.

Funded through a $500,000 grant as part of the State Government’s $31 million investment into coronavirus research and developed over 12 months, the COVID-19 NAb-Test doesn’t check for current infection.

But it can analyse your degree of immunity – recording your level of neutralising antibodies to COVID-19 – and therefore clarify whether you may need a booster.

This makes it a global game changer: other point-of-care rapid tests just measure the total amount of antibody to COVID-19, but they don’t measure the essential ‘neutralising antibodies’ that block virus infection.

Currently in the prototype phase, the Institutes are in commercial discussions to progress the test so it can be rolled out to benefit the global community in late 2022.

Image of David AndersonThere will be an ongoing need for this type of test for many years in the ‘COVID-normal’ setting where vaccines and boosters will continue to be essential,” says Associate Professor David Anderson, Deputy Director (Programs) of the Burnet and Chief Scientific Officer of the Burnet Diagnostics Initiative. “COVID-19 isn’t over until it’s over for everyone: the test will help answer questions about how long immunity lasts and help inform long-term anti-virus strategies.

“A test like this can quickly identify individuals who might need one or more extra shots to get good levels of antibody in the first place (such as cancer patients), as well as identifying those who most urgently need a booster after six months (such as healthcare workers).”

The invention, acknowledges David, builds on previous research. It has the features of a lab-based test developed by Professor Linfa Wang in Singapore - well known in the scientific community for his past work on bat viruses at the CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) in Geelong. But Burnet and Doherty “know-how” was used to make the test both speedy and easy.

Grants helped bring the invention to fruition too, David notes. “For the Burnet and other independent medical research institutes, Operational Infrastructure Support Grants help underpin all our work.”

Such backup is vital because research and development is “not like a tap that you can just turn on and off at will”, he explains. “Long-term support of the State Government greatly assisted our Institute (and others) to be ready to address the challenges COVID-19 presented. That support affects the whole culture of the research community. When our work’s valued, acknowledged and supported, as it is in Victoria, it’s much easier for us to persist in trying to overcome the many challenges we face – whether they’re scientific, commercial, clinical or with the low success rates from key funding bodies such as the NHMRC.”

In this realm, Victorian has a history of standing out. “Within Australia, the concentration of excellence in Victorian medical research with the many universities and medical research institutes is partly an example of success breeding success over many decades – but without government support to underpin this and reinforce the culture of excellence, these advantages can so easily be lost,” warns David. “Our main advantage is having great people working in a supportive environment, but it’s very easy to lose people if there are no opportunities, or better opportunities elsewhere.”

Fast fact: The Victorian Government has invested more than $580 million in medical research in the past year, including $31 million for COVID-19 research spanning immunity, testing and community impacts.