Melbourne joins global fight for COVID-19 vaccine

15 May 2020: As news kept breaking about the extent of infection around the world from coronavirus, Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity was one of the first to grow a sample from a patient outside China.  It was leading the way back then and it’s still leading the way in the search for a vaccine now.  We spoke with the Institute’s Deputy Director in early March about the prospects and the process of developing a vaccine.

The following article was originally published on 6 March 2020

The race is on to find a vaccine for the coronavirus (COVID-19), and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne is leading the way.  We find out how.

portrait shot of Mike Catton‘World leading’ is a term that’s often bandied about but in the case of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (a partnership between the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital), the phrase is spot on.

The Institute – which researches and treats viral infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, HIV, influenza, measles and rubella  – was the first place in the world to grow the COVID-19 virus from a patient sample outside China, and which was then shared  with international colleagues. Talk about a frontline response.

“Growing and safely shipping the virus (following strict procedures determined by relevant authorities including the World Health Organisation [WHO]) is a crucial first step in the global response to coronavirus (COVID-19), which will aid in understanding future public health and infection control measures,” notes the Institute’s deputy director, Dr Mike Catton, whose laboratory provides capacity for the Victorian and Australian Governments and collaborates with WHO.

“Specifically, it allows researchers to not only validate test results, but also commence work on better diagnostic tests, treatments and a vaccine. The extraordinary success of this work is no accident; it’s the result of decades of diligent preparation and dedication by our team and a true showcase of why the Doherty Institute was formed. Rapidly sharing the virus with leading international public health laboratories across the globe will assist the public health response to this novel virus.”

And rapidly sharing is exactly what the Institute did, explains Mike. “After growing the virus, we generated its whole genome sequence and shared it on international databases. And we continue to test and validate samples that we receive from Victoria, other Australian states, and countries in our region.”

The Doherty Institute-grown virus is expected to be used to create an antibody test, which will detect the virus in people with no symptoms who were unaware they were sick. This will help build a more precise map of disease spread, and help test the efficacy of trial vaccines.

Also involved in the race to create a vaccine is the University of Melbourne, which hosts the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on Infectious Disease Emergencies (APPRISE) Centre of Research Excellence, an alliance of researchers and clinicians who’ve developed many of the protocols that have led to our country being prepared to react quickly in response to a possible pandemic.

“APPRISE, which includes around 20 organisations throughout Australia and is led by Doherty Institute Director, University of Melbourne Professor Sharon Lewin, has done a lot of work connecting with similar organisations in Australia, the region and Europe, and in developing pre-approved protocols for observational and interventional studies that have been activated now,” says Mike. “Several groups in APPRISE are developing better diagnostic tests relevant for COVID-19 and infection control procedures. And there’s work being done in education and engaging key populations, including Indigenous communities. As well, APPRISE is working on better surveillance tools that will collect data and specimens and allow us to understand transmission in the community.”

The Institute will also team up with the Australian Animal Health Laboratories (part of the CSIRO) in Geelong for evaluation of antiviral drugs, says Professor Kanta Subbarao, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research Influenza at the Doherty Institute. “We’ll collaborate with AAHL to evaluate antiviral drugs in the lab and in animal models of COVID-19 infection: facilities to conduct studies in animals are not currently available at the Doherty Institute but are available at AAHL.”

As to next steps, the Doherty Institute will continue to be at the forefront of the response to coronavirus (COVID-19). “We have clinicians treating patients in hospitals; scientists continuing to diagnose cases; epidemiologists working closely with the Victorian and Australian Governments on policy; and researchers working on antibody tests, treatments and a vaccine,” says Mike.

The Victorian Government has provided $6 million to the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, the Burnet Institute and other experts to help find treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

Watch the video from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.