Scientists have replicated the Wuhan coronavirus in a laboratory for the first time outside China, raising hopes for the development of a test that will slow its spread by identifying carriers before they start to show symptoms.
The virus was successfully grown in laboratory conditions on Tuesday (January 28) by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, boosting prospects for a breakthrough in the search for a vaccine.
Julian Druce, head of the institute’s Virus Identification Laboratory, said the development would be a “game changer for diagnosis” of the virus.
“Having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities,” he said after announcing the results on Wednesday (January 29).
As of mid-Wednesday, the virus had claimed 132 lives with were more than 6,000 confirmed cases of infection in scores of countries.
Researchers worldwide are collaborating in the hunt for a vaccine but have reportedly been hampered by the lack of live samples. A laboratory in China reproduced the virus several weeks ago, but did not release the actual virus to outside researchers, although it did eventually make the genome sequence available, press reports said.
Samples of the Peter Doherty Institute pathogen will be passed on to the World Health Organization (WHO) and clinics involved in its associated vaccine program.
Mike Catton, the supervising pathologist at the institute, said they will be able to compile a more realistic picture of how the virus is tracking.
“An antibody test will enable us to retrospectively test suspected patients so we can gather a more accurate picture of how widespread the virus is, and consequently, among other things, the true mortality rate,” he said.
The virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days, which means some people may not know they have been infected and could be spreading the disease without outwardly expressing symptoms.
An antibody test would detect the presence of the coronavirus’ pathogen.
Melbourne researchers used samples from a confirmed Australian carrier to grow the virus in the laboratory. The patient arrived at the institute on January 24, speaking to the speed with which researchers created the pathogen. Five people are being treated for the virus in Australian hospitals, with most having recently arrived from China.
The breakthrough comes as Australian researchers race to develop a vaccine against the Wuhan coronavirus.
A 20-member team at the University of Queensland is applying an innovative “molecular clamp” rapid response technique that is being used to develop vaccines for related pathogens like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
University scientists are confident they can develop an injectable vaccine for production within six months, with millions of units available within 12 months, according to Keith Chappell, one of the University of Queensland team developing the vaccine.
The research is focusing on building up immune systems by using the DNA sequence of the pathogen to mimic its surface protein and then essentially trick the body into creating a defense against the actual virus, the researchers say.
The genetic sequence for the virus has already been mapped, and the team will be working around-the-clock in shifts until a vaccine is found, University of Queensland researchers say.
That may not be fast enough for Australians potentially exposed to the virus in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the outbreak.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Wednesday that a quarantine center will be opened on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean to check hundreds of Australian nationals who will soon be airlifted out of Wuhan.
There are known to be 600 Australians in the area, including 100 children, but many others may have not been identified because they are using Chinese passports. New Zealand said about 60 of its nationals are listed as being in Wuhan.
Both nations have issued broader warnings against non-essential travel to China. Initial advisories only covered Wuhan and other parts of Hubei. Planes chartered from Qantas and other airlines will be used for the airlift, which also include New Zealanders isolated in the city.
Returning Australians will be kept on Christmas Island for 14 days to check for any symptoms before being allowed on the mainland. The island has an immigration center that was set up for illegal immigrants in 2001. It is unclear whether evacuated New Zealanders would also go to the island.
Whether researchers will have a coronavirus test kit ready in time for their arrivals wasn’t immediately clear.