This Brisbane-based scientist reveals the enormous pressure he and his team are under in the race to vaccinate the world against COVID-19.
Before the world had heard of COVID-19, Professor Paul Young had been working for years on a vaccine to tackle viruses just like it.
The current vaccine design being trialled was the brainchild of Professor Young’s PhD student, Dr Keith Chappell. Without any funding, the team began testing their design in 2011 on a range of viruses, from Ebola to influenza and, importantly, to another type of coronavirus called MERS.
“We had already shown the technology to work…so we were well placed to just plug and play really when COVID-19 came on the scene,” said Professor Young.
But what started as an intellectual curiosity grew into something more as the world watched the coronavirus rapidly spread across the globe.
“Ever since January, the team has felt the pressure,” he said, “There’s no doubt about that.”
“The pressure comes from the expectation that our work will naturally progress towards a vaccine that will halt the problems we’re facing.
“The reality is, this is still science, this is still discovery…like many vaccines and drug pathways previously, it may fail.”
None of our previously developed vaccines have gone into humans yet, so that’s the obvious part of the pathway that we are most anxious about.
A successful vaccine is taken through stages before it’s given to the public: coming up with the vaccine design, eliciting an immune response in the lab, testing on animals to see that response repeated, vaccinating the animal to check they’re protected, and then moving to clinical trials in human volunteers. From there, the vaccine receives regulatory approval and is then manufactured.
“That pathway can take anything from 10, 15, even 20 years in the past,” said Professor Young, who spent most of his career working on the dengue virus, “I think the record is mumps vaccine which was done in four years.”
Despite that history, the University of Queensland scientist is working to a 12 to 18-month deadline with hopes of widescale use early next year.
And what Professor Young describes as an “extraordinary timeline” involves accelerating parts of the production process.
“Our proposal was to invest substantially in scaling up manufacture of the vaccine even before we’ve confirmed it works,” he said.
“That’s unheard of...It’s not a safety risk, but it’s a financial risk because you might invest in a vaccine that doesn’t work.”
Earlier this month, biotech company CSL accepted that risk and signed on as manufacturer.
In January, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations invested $15.5 million dollars in the potential “rapid response” vaccine. And the Federal and Queensland Governments have together almost matched that figure in funding.
Yet for all the viruses Professor Young and his team have tackled since 2011, results have only been shown in animals.
“None of our previously developed vaccines have gone into humans yet, so that’s the obvious part of the pathway that we are most anxious about,” he said.
Aside from the pressure and potential for failure, Professor Young’s team has also felt the personal impact of the pandemic.
“We have a member of staff working on this vaccine whose father-in-law lived in New York and succumbed to the virus,” he shared.
“We see the realities of the impact of the virus on a day to day basis and it keeps us driving forward.”
Early tests in animals of the potential COVID-19 vaccine have shown it produces high levels of antibodies that can neutralise the virus.
With the team preparing for human trials in July, Professor Young describes the experience so far as “a roller coaster ride.”
“No one's really had a break since that early January date, but everyone's still buoyed and excited about the progress and the path forward,” he said.
“It’s not about me, it never has been, it’s a team effort.”