Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are rushing to develop a vaccine for the Wuhan coronavirus. Image: Facebook

Australian researchers expect to develop a vaccine against the Wuhan coronavirus within four months as part of an international collaboration aimed at halting the spread of the deadly respiratory disease.

A 20-member team at the University of Queensland will apply an innovative “molecular clamp” rapid response technique that is being used to develop vaccines for related pathogens like the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

“Our aspiration with these technologies is to bring a new pathogen from gene sequence to clinical testing in 16 weeks – which is significantly shorter than where we are now,” said Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), an alliance of civil organizations, donors and scientists funding the research.

University of Queensland scientists are confident an injectable vaccine will enter production within six months, with millions of units available within 12 months.

“That is our goal. It’s an incredibly difficult timeframe, but we’ll do our best,” said Dr Keith Chappell, one of the University of Queensland team developing the vaccine.

A 59-year-old man was infected with the virus after visiting his parents in Wuhan. Photo: RTHK

The Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCOV) virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in early January and has since infected nearly 2,000 people and claimed at least 56 lives as of Sunday morning Hong Kong time.

The virus has spread throughout Asia, Europe and North America, and six potential carriers from China are undergoing medical tests in Australia. Fears of global contagion have spread with the outflow of Chinese tourists for the lunar new year.

Researchers say the disease belongs to a family of coronaviruses — any infection transmitted between animals and humans — that also includes MERS and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Bats or snakes are believed to have been the original hosts of most coronavirus pathogens.

SARS infected more than 8,000 people and killed 750 when it swept the globe in 2002. MERS infected 2,500 people, leaving more than 800 dead. Most died from pneumonia, which is also the main risk from nCoV-2019.

With the virus easily transmitted from human to human, vaccine research at the University of Queensland will focus 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 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.

University of Queensland scientists with their molecular clamp technology. Photo: Courtesy University of Queensland

“We’re really under the pump now to see whether we can deliver, but we’ve already begun the initial stages, which involves getting the DNA sequence and putting it into cells to produce the protein,” said Dr Daniel Watterson, a senior research fellow who helped to develop the platform.

“We’ve built this technology specifically for this type of response, so we’re quite confident we can actually target this type of pathogen.”

The University of Queensland, ranked among the top 10 universities in the world for biotechnology research, uses a so-called “molecular clamp” that can synthesize proteins so they produce an immune response from antibodies capable of killing the virus.

Most of those killed by nCoV-2019 have been elderly or weak adults who already had a range of ailments and had little resistance to the infection.

The same platform can be used to find vaccines against other enveloped viruses (any pathogen with an outer wrapping, or envelope), including herpes simplex, ebola, rabies, measles, lassa virus and influenza.

“Our intention with this work is to leverage our work on the MERS coronavirus and rapid response platforms to speed up vaccine development,” said CEPI’s Hatchett.

Workers producing face masks at a factory in Handan in China’s northern Hebei province. China has banned trains and planes from leaving Wuhan. Photo: AFP/STR

“There are no guarantees of success, but we hope this work could provide a significant and important step forward in developing a vaccine for this disease.”

The university’s scientists will create a nCoV-2019 vaccine in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, an Australian government-run agency, and partners in the US and Asia.

CEPI, a not-for-profit organization formed by India and Norway in 2017 to develop a rapid response against future epidemics, signed a US$10.6 million, three-year deal with the University of Queensland a year ago to develop molecular clamp platforms.

As fears grow of a worldwide pandemic, CEPI announced on Thursday that three programs had been established to tackle the nCoV-2019 virus, including a partnership between the University of Queensland and US-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals, which is creating MERS and lassa fever vaccines.

Other collaborators will be Moderna, another US pharmaceutical company, and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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