Westmead COVID Vaccine: Local researchers working on a world-first booster

HEALTH | JADE HOBMAN

MEDICAL researchers in Western Sydney are pioneering a new vaccine that would guard against all existing and future strains of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR) is conducting tests they hope will lead to a world-first, essential booster that enhances immunity when it is partnered with COVID-19 vaccines.

Infectious diseases expert and WIMR founder Professor Tony Cunningham said COVID-19 vaccines have had excellent results in Australia, but still have a way to go, as he and the research team zone in on helping, in particular, the aged and people with immunity issues.

“One of the problems is duration and as occurs with many vaccines the level and duration of vaccine protection in the aging is less than people in mid life because their immune system declines, and then you have compromised people as well,” Professor Cunningham said.

They are not looking to replace vaccines like Pfizer or Moderna, but are instead seeking to enhance their effect, and to prolong the vaccines’ duration in the human body.

Duration is a key factor in vaccine productivity, and is required for continued protection against severe disease and death.  When a virus like SARS-CoV-2, which causes the COVID-19 disease, is introduced into the body it can attach itself like a ‘key in a lock’ to cells in the body causing infection.

When vaccines are introduced they bring about a two-pronged defense response in the immune system, antibodies and T-cell production.  Antibodies act as good bouncers in preventing the virus from becoming attached to our cells, coming in between the key and the lock.

But after some time in the body they can taper off after a vaccination, especially in those with less immunity strength, and this is where T-cells do more of the heavy lifting.  They last longer in the body than antibodies, and can work to boost antibody levels rapidly, if someone is infected again.

So then it has been the WIMR’s task to find out which fragments of the virus give the best T-cell push back.

“It’s the T-cells we are interested in … we are collaborating with other Australian scientists to try and create a T-cell vaccine … and we can produce the vaccine from fragments of the virus, which are not affected by a change in variants, like from the Wuhan strain to the Delta strain,” Professor Cunningham said.

“We’re trying to develop a booster that doesn’t require changing every time a new variant comes along, it can be used for just simply all variants.”

A future scenario would show us taking our Covid-19 boosters alongside WIMR’s COVID T-cell booster simultaneously for best effect, and it will most likely be a two-dose injection.  But the research has a whole lot of testing to do before they start phase one of trialing their vaccine in Western Sydney.

Vaccines normally have to go through several phases of clinical trials that can take years to complete, and Professor Cunningham’s team is in the preclinical stage before the first phase.

Although, tests are currently being done by the WIMR on previously infected residents of COVID-19 in Western Sydney, as well as ones who have had the Pfizer vaccine.

These immune-response tests will eventually lead the team to testing their cutting edge COVID T-cell vaccine on people in trials, which Professor Cunningham expects to take place in Western Sydney in about a year.

“We have made a lot of headway with vaccines over the years, and what we have seen with COVID has been extraordinary in terms of acceleration of production,” Professor Cunningham said. “We are contributing our bit as Australia should, because we are an excellent scientific nation.”

World-renowned virus researcher Professor Sarah Palmer and expert immunologist Dr. Kerrie Sandgren are collaborating on the project with Professor Cunningham at the WIMR.

Where do we stand now in Australia?

Australia currently has three vaccines available, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, as part of the federal government’s $8B plus investment in the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

A fourth called Novavax is expected to hit our shores soon, pending the go-ahead from the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Once approved, it is expected that 51 million doses will be available in late 2021.

All these vaccines have been a hit in their effectiveness, with Pfizer and CSL Limited’s AstraZeneca smashing it against the Delta variant, exceeding a 90 percent success rate, according to Professor Cunningham.

A study outcome released by Moderna in August said their vaccine was proven to have 93 percent efficacy against variants like Delta. Novavax also has had good results against Delta, with very high levels of antibodies produced during recent studies.

“We have never seen such a good collaboration between our government and CSL, or the USA and Moderna, Pfizer and Novavax,” Professor Cunningham said.

According to the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, there are currently two clinical trials being carried out by Australian companies, EnGeneIC in Melbourne and Vaxine in Adelaide.

Image: Infectious diseases expert and WIMR founder Professor Tony Cunningham.

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