How Australian innovation is helping in the global fight against coronavirus

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Australia is playing its role in the global response to the novel coronavirus pandemic with the country’s best and brightest working towards a vaccine and treatments for the infectious disease.

As part of an international coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO has commenced pre-clinical trials for two vaccines at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness.

“CSIRO researchers are working around-the-clock to combat this disease which is affecting so many – whether it’s at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) or at our state-of-the-art biologics manufacturing facility – we will keep working until this viral enemy is defeated,” said CSIRO Chief Executive, Dr Larry Marshall.

CSIRO has a long history of developing and testing vaccines since the opening of the AAHL in 1985. It is the only high biocontainment facility in the southern hemisphere working with highly dangerous and exotic pathogens, including diseases that transfer from animals to people.

In February, CSIRO became the first in the world to confirm ferrets react to SARS-CoV-2 and researchers have quickly progressed to studying the course of infection in the animals – a crucial step in understanding if a vaccine will work.

CSIRO was the first research organisation outside of China to generate sufficient stock of the virus, using the virus strain isolated by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, to enable pre-clinical studies and research on COVID-19.

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The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity is located just outside Melbourne’s city centre[/caption]

The Doherty Institute, a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital, launched the Australasian COVID-19 trial (ASCOT) in late April. ASCOT will initially test two treatments using drugs that are currently used to treat HIV and arthritis.

The trial will assess whether it is better to use either drug or in combination. It will involve patients from over 70 hospitals in Australia and New Zealand who are hospitalised with COVID-19 but do not yet require intensive care support, with the aim of preventing deterioration to the point of needing a ventilator.

The institute’s Associate Professor Steven Tong said that while the World Health Organization considers both these drugs to be promising treatments for COVID-19, more research is needed to be sure they are safe and effective in humans.

“Having such a coordinated approach… means that not only can many patients participate, but we can also generate the evidence as quickly as possible. Ideally, as other potential treatments become available, these can also be tested within the coordinated framework of ASCOT.”

Another Australian led trial of up to 4,000 healthcare workers is investigating whether an existing, commonly-used vaccine can reduce the effects of COVID-19. Led by The South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), the trial uses Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) - a vaccine developed against tuberculosis and still given to over 100 million babies annually for that purpose.

Part of Adelaide’s BioMed City next door to the Adelaide Convention Centre, SAHMRI is well placed to lead this trial in South Australia as, under the direction of Professor David Lynn, the institute has been researching the non-specific effects of vaccines including BCG.

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