Where are we at with a coronavirus vaccine and when will it be available in Australia?

With more than 750,000 cases of coronavirus worldwide and more than 35,000 deaths, a global medical race is underway to develop a vaccine for the virus, but it can't be done overnight, say health experts.

University of Queensland scientists

University of Queensland scientists hope to help develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Source: Supplied University of Queensland

The World Health Organisation says there are currently 20 coronavirus vaccines being developed, but Australian researchers are citing reports of up to 60 candidate vaccines in the works.

None of them are ready yet to be used on a human being.

Which countries are developing a vaccine?

World health officials have said the task to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine is an international effort, with scientists and experts sharing information.

WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "Every day COVID-19 seems to reach a new and tragic milestone. Every loss of life is a tragedy and it is also a motivation to double down and do everything we can". 

The collective of research is being carried out in China, the US, and 18 European countries which are currently fast-tracking the vaccine development.

CSIRO lab researchers conducting key research in the rapid global response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
CSIRO lab researchers conducting key research in the rapid global response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Source: CSIRO

In Singapore, a potential COVID-19 vaccine is reportedly days away from being tested.

Deputy director of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Ooi Eng Eong, says his team is fast-tracking the process at an unbelievable rate.

"Instead of waiting six months to see whether a vaccine works, in three to five days, we will know whether it works, whether it triggers the right genes to be turned on, and which ones to be turned off, that will lead to developing a good immune response," he said. 

“By using a molecular approach to measuring these outcomes, rather than waiting and seeing whether these happen clinically, we shorten the process from what would otherwise takes six months, down to a few days.”

What is Australia's role in this?

Australia is playing a leading role in the race to produce a vaccine.

Australian scientists are among researchers working together from nearly 50 universities, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies around the world.

University of Queensland researchers are preparing to trial two existing medications to treat the virus and the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) is testing potential vaccines and therapeutics.

CSIRO scientists research the coronavirus.
CSIRO scientists research the coronavirus. Source: AAP

The government agency has been commissioned to develop a system so that anyone with a candidate vaccine (a vaccine that they think will work but hasn’t yet had proof of effectiveness) can just plug it into their system and make the process of testing faster.

They say they will have the system set up for vaccine producers to use by next month.

Professor Paul Young's team is on the frontline of the movement to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

As the head of the University of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, he says he is feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.

His team has experimented with hundreds of formulations and have settled on one candidate which could become the first in the world to go to market.

“We are conducting animal safety studies before we put a vaccine into the first human arm ... we are looking at June 2021," he told SBS News.

How does a vaccine work?

There are several ways to make a vaccine. One way is to grow up the virus and kill it.

The second way is to produce a purified protein from the virus and mix it with an adjuvant, and that collaboration becomes the vaccine.

The third way is to take the genes that specify the virus proteins you want to make, put those into a different, harmless viral vector, and use that as a vaccine, which produces the protein that raises the immune responses that are protective.

Right now, no one has been successful in creating a COVID-19 vaccine.

An image of the coronavirus responsible for causing the disease COVID-19.
An image of the coronavirus responsible for causing the disease COVID-19. Source: CSIRO

A vaccine would fight part or all of virus in the human immune system.

It is usually delivered in the form of an injection and at a low dose to prompt the system to produce antibodies to the source of the virus.

Antibodies have an immune memory which means once they have battled a virus the first time, they can be quickly mobilised again if the person is exposed to the virus again.

A syringe containing the first shot given in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for the COVID-19.
A syringe containing the first shot given in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for the COVID-19. Source: AP

Professor Young says researchers are either trying to discover an entirely new vaccine, or build one out of elements that are already proven to help people.

“A lot of people are going down the discovery path, trying to identify new compounds that might inhibit the virus, but that path is as challenging as a vaccine path because you can’t put a new drug straight into humans, you need to do the appropriate testing," he said. 

“Re-purposing is where we have the biggest hope ... there are drugs out there that have been through clinical trials and we know they are safe. We just need to show they can take appropriate action against COVID-19."

“There are numerous clinical trials underway, including here in Australia as well. We already had ready-made vaccine platform technologies in place. We designed our first construct and started the process of developing a vaccine within hours.”

How long will it take to become available?

Based on previous vaccines and research, it takes many years to develop a vaccine for a disease affecting people around the world. But in the coronavirus battle, researchers are rapidly speeding up the process.

Professor Young says his team is working night and day, and they are making remarkable progress.

“Normally a vaccine takes many years ... most have taken 10 or even 15 years to develop," he said. 

“The 12-18 month timeline is the best estimate right now - if we go flat out and accelerate.

“This is a remarkable possibility, and we need to hit milestones successfully before going on to newer stages."

Executive Director of the World Health Organisation Mike Ryan says researchers will not cut corners just to be the first to produce a vaccine.

"I think we have to be realistic. Vaccines take a long time to develop, tests, make them safe, prove that they are effective. And then you have to produce enough vaccines for everybody," he said. 

When would it be accessible in Australia?

The CSRIO's Dr Rob Grenfell says the timeline of developing a vaccine in Australia is going to be relatively fast because researchers started the race with most of the tools partly developed and already at their disposal.

“We are far ahead of where we were with SARS but the scientific complexity of what we are doing equates to the complexity of trying to put someone on Mars," he said. 

“It is very complex, and we really are pushing our science to the limits of global knowledge.

“If all goes well, and everything goes right, CSIRO could be testing vaccines in months.”

The federal government is investing almost $6 million in additional research and development for three Australian COVID-19 vaccines.
The federal government is investing almost $6 million in additional research and development for three Australian COVID-19 vaccines. Source: Moment RF

But according to Professor Marylouise McLaws, an Australian advisor to the World Health Organisation for COVID-19 Readiness and Response, a lot more needs to be done to curtail the virus now.

“The only quick-fix is a vaccine and that’s not happening anytime quick ... so we are going to have to do what other outbreaks have done: suffer the discomfort of very basic outbreak prevention strategies.

“That is social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”

What other measures are being suggested in the meantime?

As well as social distancing and self-isolation measures currently being enforced in Australia, and in many other countries around the world, therapeutics and testing are key focuses for the health industry while it waits for a vaccine to be developed. 

  • Therapeutics
Relief therapeutics are drugs that offer relief to the body to help fight the virus but do not completely defeat it. These are used temporarily to treat patients, reduce their suffering and strengthen the immune system fighting the virus until a vaccine is in place.

The World Health Organisation says it recognises there is an urgent need for therapeutics to treat coronavirus patients and to save lives. This means developing drugs to treat already infected patients.

  • Testing
The first step in any coronavirus test is collecting a sample.

Doing so involves placing a sterile swab at the back of a patient’s nasal passage, where it connects to the throat, for several seconds to absorb a sample.

Once the results come back, a person will be informed if they tested positive or negative, and health experts will inform them what steps or precautions need to be taken next.

University of Queensland scientists in the lab developing a candidate vaccine.
University of Queensland scientists in the lab developing a candidate vaccine Source: Supplied University of Queensland

Another test that may help improve testing would see a finger prick test take a small drop of blood, which measures the lateral flow circulating in the sample, and experts can detect if any of those are specific to the coronavirus.

“It is an existing test that has adapted to the COVID situations. It is an exciting development and similar versions are being developed here in Australia,” Professor Young said.

The World Health Organisation's Dr Ryan says the testing stage is just as vital right now as the efforts being made to develop a vaccine.

"We need to actively search for cases of the virus and we need to test every single suspect case, and if any contacts are sick we need to test them as well. We don't need to test everybody, we need to focus on testing those who may have the virus," he said. 

Can you build immunity to the virus?

There is no proof yet that people who are infected by the virus and recover will not be infected by it again. 

People who become infected have to fight it with their own immune system.

Usually after a viral infection your immune system develops an early response, and builds antibodies.

If you are unwell or get sick again at a later stage, your immune system gives a more mature response, thanks to the antibodies that were already developed.

Antibodies are supposed to give people longer-term protection to a virus, eventually gaining natural immunity to it. 

Dr Ryan says the medical world is doing everything it can to combat COVID-19 and people should follow the current advice in the meantime to prevent more cases. 

"We are talking at least a year. But that doesn't mean we are helpless, we can do a lot to stop this disease right now and we can save a lot of lives right now."

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at 

10 min read
Published 31 March 2020 at 7:10am
By Marcus Megalokonomous