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Iraqi doctor who migrated for a 'brighter future' is now developing a coronavirus vaccine

Monash University post-doctoral fellow Harry Al-Wassiti Source: Supplied

Iraqi migrant Dr Harry Al-Wassiti is part of a team of scientists at Monash University who are testing three vaccine candidates for coronavirus.

Doctor Harry Al-Wassiti migrated to Australia in search of a “new opportunity and a brighter future”.

More than 14 years after leaving war-torn Iraq, he's now at the forefront of Australian efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

He’s part of the three-person research team at Monash University that is developing a vaccine using an emerging technology called messenger RNA or mRNA.

The post-doctoral fellow told SBS Arabic24 that he was “thrilled” after the team – which includes Dr Estelle Suys and led by Professor Colin Pouton - developed three vaccine candidates in four weeks.

Supplied
Supplied

It’s hoped their breakthrough could lead to unlocking the immune system’s ability to fight off the virus.

“The most important part of this technology is that it is very fast and can be modified and changed without affecting the vaccine, which is very important in terms of how fast the vaccine can be developed," he said. 

The technology works by sending a certain code through the mRNA agent to the body's cells, so the cells can be encouraged to produce part of the coronavirus' distinctive protein.

It’s hoped that it could be used to trigger the immune system to produce antibodies that would protect the body from potential infection.

It is the same technology used by US biopharma company Moderna, which received half a billion in US government funding.

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Moderna’s announcement that their vaccine successfully triggered the production of antibodies in human trials sent the US stock market soaring in mid-May.

The Monash team has begun pre-clinical trials. 

“We started the pre-clinical model this week, and this should take four weeks until we get the preliminary results, and based on this we will decide which of the three vaccines we will work to develop.”

Developing a DNA-based vaccine or mRNA-based vaccine is something that has never been done.

“The science community is cooperating rather than competing, everyone working on a vaccine want to develop the best vaccine for people in the fastest way," he said

“But this is a virus we have never seen before as a scientific community, so we try in more than one direction.

“As they say, don’t put all the eggs in one basket."

From Baghdad to Melbourne

Dr Al-Wassiti was born and raised in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. He left his homeland due to security concerns in 2006, three years after the US-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein began.

Like many Iraqis, he relocated to neighbouring Jordan, where he managed to obtain a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy.

He migrated to Australia with his parents in late 2010.

“My family and I migrated and we were looking for a new opportunity and brighter future,” he said.

“There were a lot of difficulties settling in Australia at the beginning, learning a new language and adapting to a new system different from the one we lived in before.”

The university has a number of campuses, four of which are in Victoria, and one in Malaysia.
The university has a number of campuses, four of which are in Victoria, and one in Malaysia.
Supplied

He obtained his honours in 2013, before completing his PHD at Monash, specialising in DNA vaccinations.

After 10 years in Australia, he’s grateful for the support system that helped him along the way.

“I had great friends and family and a great partner who helped me along the way.

“The Arab community has made a lot of contributions to the scientific community in Australia, and the science field is full of Arab names who do amazing work.

“I have the Australian spirit and the Iraqi spirit and together they provide something unique to the Australian community.”

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