Scientists Fast-Tracking Coronavirus Vaccine Might Be Forced To Compromise Safety
Researchers in Queensland might be one step closer to developing a vaccine for coronavirus but experts say fast-tracking the shot could mean compromising safety.
One researcher has suggested the risk is worth the potential payoff, as the vaccine will be most effective if it is ready in the next six months - after which it may become too late.
Earlier this week Paul Young, head of the University of Queensland's School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, told the ABC a team of scientists had been working tirelessly to fast-track the vaccine building process.
This comes after a group of Australian scientists were successful in producing a lab-grown version of the disease.
Young said China released a sequence last month that provided the viral genome researchers needed to "take and express".
"A key milestone is actually generating the vaccine prior to putting it into animal studies," he said.
"We will be going into our first animal studies at the University of Queensland this week, to be followed not long after by studies at the Australian Animal Health laboratories at the CSIRO in Geelong."
He said they're aiming to have all pre-clinical work done by the middle of the year before they start human studies on volunteers in Brisbane.
Scientists Might Have To Compromise Risk
Normally a new vaccine would take years to develop, from concept to licence, but considering the urgency of this situation, medical researchers are forced to take the shortest pathway possible.
Speaking to 10 daily, Professor Glenn Browning from the University of Melbourne -- who traditionally researches various coronavirus strains in animals -- said the "strength of the crisis has influenced people's (researchers') appetite for risk".
"In a normal situation these things take years and (scientists) are set a very high level of safety and criteria," he explained.
"They must provide clear evidence they'll work. Given how important or dangerous (the situation is) you might have to shorten the pathway and accept you're not going to take the same level of safety."
He said the next step will be injecting the vaccine into a laboratory animal, such as a ferret, to see if it induces an antibody and therefore stops the virus from infecting them.
"They will take the shortest pathway possible to show it induces an antibody that can stop the virus," Browning said.
"This could be quite a quick process, faster than we've ever seen before."
While researchers will be forced to get a move on, Browning acknowledged this doesn't mean they won't be taking necessary precautions.
"They still must be pretty certain risks are low but might accept a trade-off of the potential risk of a small number of people (having a reaction), to saving 100,000," he said.
"If it's going to make a difference it will have to be (available) this year. I think they have the potential to do it six months or earlier."
In terms of who should be vaccinated first, Browning said the most obvious starting point would be to vaccinate health workers who are most at risk of being exposed to the virus.
Otherwise the Department of Health will rely on the information available regarding the demographic of people dying or being infected with the disease.
"For instance some age groups such people under 30 might have no deaths so you might not vaccinate them," he said.
"It also depends on where and how fast the virus is spreading."
In the Department of Health's plan for a influenza pandemic, for example, the government organisation says vaccines may be stockpiled as a precautionary measure.
"They are most likely to be of value in protecting people at risk of complications from influenza and in protecting the health workforce in order to maintain the capacity of the health system," the report says.
10 daily has contacted the Department of Health for comment on its pandemic plan regarding the novel coronavirus.
US Researchers Ahead Of The Game
In the United States, drug maker Moderna is apparently well ahead of the curb after claiming to have produced its first batch of coronavirus vaccines which it says are ready to be tested on humans.
The company has shipped vials of the drug called mRNA-1273 to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Maryland.
According to CBS News, NIAID will start the clinical trial on 20 to 25 healthy subjects by the end of April.
This would mark a three-month period between vaccine design and human testing, with initial results becoming available as early as July.
The coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, has infected more than 80,000 people and killed nearly 3,000.
There have been 22 cases in Australia so far.