Race against time: what we can learn from The University of Queensland’s COVID-19 vaccine | Top Universities

Race against time: what we can learn from The University of Queensland’s COVID-19 vaccine

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Stephanie Lukins

Updated Apr 26, 2021



Race against time: what we can learn from The University of Queensland’s COVID-19 vaccine main image

Sponsored by The University of Queensland

When reports emerged from China of a novel coronavirus at the end of 2019, healthcare leaders, researchers, scientists and medical experts around the world immediately began working to find effective and safe vaccines and treatments.

One promising candidate emerged in Queensland, Australia, where a team of researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ), in partnership with global biopharmaceutical company CSL Limited, spent most of 2020 evolving their ‘molecular clamp’ technology to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, with Phase 1 trials commencing in July 2020.

While it was confirmed in December 2020 that the vaccine would not be progressing to the next phase of human trials, the team is confident the technology will provide the world with an incredibly powerful solution for viral pandemics in the future. 

Here, we take a closer look at the vaccine and how it might help protect us in the future.

How was the vaccine developed?

Vaccines safely expose your immune system to a virus, or components of a virus, so your body can produce antibodies, allowing you to develop a protective immunity without contracting the actual virus in the first place.

With funding support from The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences team had already been working on a vaccine platform technology that could be applied to an emerging virus threat.

In January 2020, as COVID-19 began its alarming spread around the world, the UQ team were tasked by CEPI to use their approach to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. They are one of many teams around the world that have been working on various approaches for a potential vaccine.

The UQ team’s approach used their patented ‘molecular clamp’ (MC) technology to ensure that the viral protein that forms the basis of the vaccine was in the correct shape to induce a potent immune response. They created their first vaccine candidate in the lab in just three weeks.

All signs were promising, and UQ, CEPI and CSL entered into a landmark agreement in June 2020 to manufacture and develop the vaccine.

What happened during Phase 1 trials?

The Phase 1 trials of the vaccine started in July 2020, and data showed the UQ COVID-19 vaccine was eliciting a robust response to the virus, with no observed safety concerns.

However, among the reams of positive data, there was an unexpected finding that would ultimately prevent the vaccine from progressing.

Participants in the trial had generated a low-level antibody response to fragments of a protein – gp41 – used in the ‘molecular clamp’ technology, which interfered with some HIV screening tests.

“Of the proteins we originally considered as a stabilizing element, gp41 from the HIV virus turned out to be the most promising,” UQ vaccine project co-leader Professor Paul Young said.

“The protein pieces that make up the clamp are completely harmless, and adding them to the spike protein provided the required, enhanced stability. So we progressed this approach into our proof-of-concept research.

“Our intention was always to explore additional options through the course of the research programme.”

In January 2019, the team entered into a partnership with CEPI to look at evolving the technology as a rapid response vaccine pipeline, and testing its deployment against known viruses.

“We would have learnt a lot in that process, but when SARS-CoV-2 emerged and we saw the emergency unfolding, CEPI called on us to respond, so our focus shifted to using what we had in the toolbox,” Professor Young said.

UQ vaccine project director Professor Trent Munro said despite promising results, the diagnostic interference meant the vaccine would not progress to the next phase.

“To be completely clear, there was no possibility the vaccine could cause HIV infection – and routine follow-up tests confirmed a negative result,” he said.

“However, any tests that do not give someone clarity can create concern, and anything that interferes with public confidence in vaccines has to be part of the consideration.

“That’s why we understand the decision to halt our vaccine.”

What’s next for UQ’s vaccine?

What's next for UQ's vaccine?

Image credit: Anjanette Webb for The University of Queensland

For now, the Phase 1 trial of the vaccine will continue, where further analysis of the data will show how long the antibodies to gp41 persist.

“The level of antibody response against HIV is actually very low, and initial signs are already showing that this response is waning,” Professor Munro said.

“We’re going to resume our original CEPI programme of work – building on what we have learned about this technology and its ability to produce robust, stable vaccines.”

Professor Munro said whilst the team was disappointed, they were also proud of what has been achieved.

“If anything, this year’s results have given us even greater confidence that the underlying approaches will provide the world with an incredibly powerful solution for viral pandemics in the future, as well as a raft of viral targets for which vaccines don’t yet exist.”

Lead image credit: Glenn Hunt for The University of Queensland

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