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The known ‘risk’ scientists are taking in race for COVID-19 vaccine

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

The world’s top scientists are racing to find a vaccine and usable treatments for coronavirus, but along with the speedy research, there comes a ‘risk’.

The world's top scientists are racing to find a vaccine and usable treatments for coronavirus, but along with the speedy research, there comes a risk made all the more concerning by the current economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

There have been reports that some vaccine research could reach clinical trials as soon as July this year, demonstrating the break-neck speed at which scientists have been working in recent months since COVID-19 spread rapidly around the world.

Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Professor Sharon Lewin, said hundreds of scientists globally, from major research bodies and big pharma, to smaller biotech companies and academia, are in such a desperate search for a vaccine that the financial considerations normally factored into similar projects are being cast aside for the greater good.

"[They're] in a bit of a financial risk, but we're in a position at the moment where time is absolutely critical," she said in a talk for the Australian Academy of Science.

The University of Queensland has developed what they hope is an effective vaccine for coronavirus.

Professor Lewin said the development of a vaccine usually takes 5-10 years to complete all phases, due to the research and cost involved.

The pre-clinical development phase usually involves showing that the vaccine induces an immune response (immunogenic) in animals, and that it protects the animal from infection. The vaccine must then be manufactured at a high enough quality to be given to humans.

"Then you enter phase one studies, usually small studies, aimed at making sure the vaccine is safe and finding the right dose of the vaccine," she said.

"Then you would move to phase two studies, which is a larger study in humans, looking at immunogenicity and safety, and it might have several hundred people involved.

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"Then phase three involves thousands of people in the study."

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However the situation with coronavirus is totally different, Professor Lewin explains.

"That whole timeline is now being compressed, but it's quite expensive because it costs quite a bit of money to manufacture vaccines to a grade that's safe for humans," she said.

"It costs quite a bit of money to run phase one and two studies, and you might be halfway through that when you show your animal has no protection."

The two strategies being used for vaccine research are active vaccination, where a piece of the virus is given to a subject to induce an immune response.

The other approach is a passive vaccine strategy in which antibodies from someone with the virus are collected or manufactured and then given to an uninfected person to provide protection.

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Dr Lewin said the nature of the research means that many will have brilliant ideas on how to approach vaccine development, but several will not reach the end of their studies with the desired outcome.

That is where global cooperation is vital in an organised effort for a COVID-19 vaccine.

"You want a bit of competition, but you don't want overlap and duplication because you're wasting effort," Professor Lewin said.

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Treatments are also at the forefront of current coronavirus research, which can assist in recovery of those already infected with COVID-19.

"Treatments are largely focusing on anti-virals but also on drugs that modulate the immune system because both of these processes are important for coronavirus," Professor Lewin said.

"My background is in HIV and we achieved extraordinary success with managing HIV by just targeting the virus.

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"You turn the virus off and the immune system recovers and people's health returns to normal.

"But it's actually a little different and more complicated with coronavirus where you've got this balance of targeting the virus, targeting the cell where the virus is replicating and targeting the immune system, and all of those components look like they'll be important for managing coronavirus to get approved clinical outcomes."

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Current research that the Doherty Institute are across have shown promising signs on the rapid development of treatments for coronavirus.

"They are at that early phase looking at drugs that target where the cell where the virus replicates, because there is some evidence that you can turn off host pathways," Professor Lewin said.

"They're also developing drugs that target the virus - that's the conventional way we develop anti-virals. It's a combination of designing new drugs and re-purposing old drugs.

"And there's some emerging data showing that the efficacy of antiviral drugs like Remdesivir is greater if you give it within 10 days of symptoms, compared to more than 10 days of symptoms.

"While Drugs that modify or suppress the immune system, generally would have a role when people are in the late phase of the illness where it's harder to find the virus and you've got more chaos in the immune response."

Source: 9News

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