Head of School
School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences
Affiliated Professor, Institute for Molecular Bioscience
University of Queensland (UQ)
What are the major problems that we are facing to curb the current pandemic situation?
There are a number of problems facing the global community at the moment that add to the challenges inherent in actioning an effective public health response. The biggest is mis-information and clear and sensible public health messaging has not always been able to cut through the noise. In many countries, the messaging around hand washing and physical distancing was somewhat lost in the early stages of the outbreak, with notable exceptions such as Singapore, South Korea etc. Unfortunately, this has not been restricted to social media and selected political and MSM advice but has also infiltrated the science. For example, the rush to publish has given false hope of a rapid “cure” – no better demonstrated than by the many who have jumped on the hydroxy-chloroquine bandwagon. The quickest path to a therapeutic is indeed re-purposing, but it would be wonderful to see those conducting the necessary clinical trials not pre-judging the outcomes in fanfare press releases. Regardless, I suspect that the most effective pathway to therapeutics is by focusing on the immunopathology that underlies much of the severe symptomatology – the early promising findings with IL6 targeted therapeutics (receptor antagonists and antibodies) supports this. Absence of a clear indication of the infection denominator, how many have been infected, has also impacted how we have responded. Recent roll-out of serology testing will hopefully serve to better understand the underlying epidemiology of this disease. With lockdowns in play for many, and imminent for others, one real challenge that we face in the near future is how we continue to work on solutions. The global collaboration has been fantastic to see, demonstrated extremely well through the GVN. We have been approached by everyone from academia, NGOs, regulatory authorities, small Biotechs to large pharma with offers of reagents, expertise and help. But we are now seeing physical constraints in supply chains (diminishing reagents for diagnostic testing being one very present danger) and some countries looking to secure domestic supply at the expense of their global partners. These are emerging challenges that will be hard to address.
What are you and your institution currently working on regarding SARS-CoV-2?
The University of Queensland (UQ) is currently developing its proprietary molecular clamp technology that forms the basis of a vaccine platform. The co-inventors, Dr Keith Chappell, Dr Dan Watterson and Professor Paul Young are leading the COVID-19 vaccine research program at UQ with support initially from CEPI as part of a 3 year research program that began in 2019. Additional funding has now been secured with Australian government and philanthropic support to advance large-scale manufacture alongside preclinical and clinical studies. We are also seeking engagement from large pharma to transition to effective manufacture and release. Our COVID-19 vaccine candidate is a stabilised recombinant subunit vaccine based on the virus Spike protein. The molecular clamp technology locks this trimeric protein in its native shape, ensuring the human immune response will be able to appropriately recognize and then kill the virus. We are currently nearing the end of our immunogenicity studies in mice, with promising early data. Our plan is to be in a Phase I clinical trial by the end of June.
Prof. Young completed his PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1986, staying on as a Lecturer in the University of London. He returned to Australia as Senior Research Fellow at the Sir Albert Sakzewski Virus Research Centre in 1989 and joined the University of Queensland as a Senior Lecturer in 1991. He is the current Chair of the Virology Division of the International Union of Microbiological Societies and a past President of the Australian Society for Microbiology, Australasian Virology Society and the Asia Pacific Society for Medical Virology. His research into RNA viruses encompasses three over-arching themes; gaining a clearer understanding of the molecular basis of severe disease, the development of improved diagnostics, and therapeutic and vaccine control strategies. His expertise includes the immunopathology of medically important viral infections including dengue and respiratory syncytial virus. Current studies are focused on a recombinant subunit vaccine platform technology, needle-free micro-array patch vaccine delivery to the skin, and the role of the dengue virus encoded NS1 protein as a TLR4 agonist in the pathogenesis of severe disease.
Overview of University of Queensland and GVN
The University of Queensland (UQ) is one of Australia’s leading research and teaching institutions and ranked as a top 50 university globally. UQ strives for excellence through the creation, preservation, transfer and application of knowledge. UQ and GVN started the collaboration through Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre, a multidisciplinary network based at The University of Queensland, and the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, in 2019 on a mission of helping the world prepare to prevent, contain and control viral epidemic threats.