Commuters walk past Melbourne's Flinders Street Station on July 23, 2020 on the first day of the mandatory wearing of face masks in public areas as the city experiences an outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Photo: AFP/William West

SYDNEY — Australian scientists are fast-tracking trials of Covid-19 vaccines after a wave of infections in aged care facilities forced another lockdown in Melbourne that will limit the movements of about five million people.

The outbreak in the country’s second-biggest city, which has come after measures to control the spread of the virus were eased, has resulted in about 3,000 infections and closed all borders into the state of Victoria.

Hundreds of soldiers will help police enforce the lockdown, including a night-time curfew, which starts at midnight today (August 5). People caught leaving their homes without a permit could be fined US$14,000.

“It’s painful, it’s challenging, it’s very difficult, but it is the only strategy that we have. It’s the advice of the experts and it is what we believe will drive case numbers down,” said the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews.

Australia’s Covid-19 figures are still relatively low by global standards, with 18,743 infections and 232 deaths. However, the upsurge in Victoria, which began in late June, could undermine early success in stemming the virus.

Health authorities traced the latest cluster to a quarantine breach by a security guard at an isolation hotel in Melbourne, who took the virus to densely-packed suburban tower blocks with mostly immigrant residents.

Protective Services officers speak to a man sitting on the steps of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne on July 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/William West

Fatalities spiked when it reached dozens of aged care facilities, and there are now scores of unexplained community transmissions. Victoria today  reported a further 725 cases, up from 439 on Tuesday, and 15 deaths.

Some medical experts believe Australia has become a victim of its own success in controlling the initial outbreak of Covid-19. Japan and Israel, which have similar trajectories, have also had second waves of infections.

“We’re not alone and it’s definitely a sign in some countries that they shouldn’t have taken their foot off the brake. If you look at Israel you can readily identify an easing of restrictions before the decks were cleared,” University of Sydney professor Stephen Leeder said in a recent interview.

The upsurge in cases has led to calls for Australia to adopt an elimination

strategy, used successfully by New Zealand, rather than simply trying to suppress the virus’s spread. Government leaders are opposed, as it would effectively mean a shutdown until there were zero local infections.

“You’re talking about hundreds of thousands of more people unemployed for a start,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last month. “You can’t mortgage off your economy for what would prove to be an illusory goal.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in the hot seat. Photo: AFP

Economic growth is already expected to decline by about 4% in 2020, and about 10% of workers are unemployed. A budget deficit of US$61 billion is expected this year, predominantly because of Covid-19 stimulus spending.

Andrews has not ruled out tougher policies that would bring Victoria to the brink of an elimination strategy but said it would be a last resort.

“We don’t want to have to go further than this. That’s why we’ve got to make this work. We have got to find a way to make this work,” he said.

Morrison’s government is pinning its hopes on a Covid-19 vaccine, with at least two expected to become available in Australia from early next year.

Adelaide-based company Vaxine and Flinders University said this week their candidate had shown positive results in human trials, with strong levels of antibodies, and might be given to aged care patients in Victoria.

Phase two human trials have not yet started, but Vaxine research director Professor Nikolai Petrovsky said the group would not wait for the results.

Ambulance officers transfer a resident from the Epping Gardens aged care facility in the Melbourne suburb of Epping on July 28, 2020 as the city battles fresh outbreaks of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Photo: AFP/William West

“We are confident, based on previous experience of using the recombinant spike protein method, that our formula will offer strong and durable protection against Covid-19, without causing any safety issues.

“As such, we have begun production and will be ready to meet advanced purchased orders as soon as we get regulatory approval,” he said.

A second candidate developed by University of Queensland also reported healthy immunity levels in early human trials, and has started preparing for large-scale production of the vaccine with commercial partner CSL.

There will be two further human trials later this year and in early 2020.

Meanwhile, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the University of Melbourne are testing the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine, already used against tuberculosis, to see if it would work with Covid-19.

It will be tested on 10,000 healthcare workers in Australia, Europe and Latin America, but the vaccine is likely to give only partial protection.

Researchers are involved in what is becoming a nationalistic race to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. Image: Facebook

“If so, it will be readily available to bridge the gap and protect healthcare workers and other vulnerable individuals until a specific Covid-19 vaccine is developed,” said Professor Nigel Curtis, a researcher at the MCRI.  

The Australian Center for Disease Preparedness, a secure laboratory near

Melbourne is also testing vaccines for the University of Oxford (UK) and Inovio Pharmaceuticals (US), but neither is likely to be made in Australia.