Australian researchers developing a potential vaccine for COVID-19 have signed an agreement with a global vaccine group and an Australian manufacturer that would fast-track a potential vaccine's availability to the public, if it proven to safe and effective in upcoming trials.
Researchers at the University of Queensland are at the forefront of the global race to develop a vaccine to the virus which has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, using "molecular clamp" technology to create immunity to the virus.
On Friday the university announced a partnership with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and Australian-based biotech company CSL, to fund the development and manufacture of the vaccine.
CEPI is a global philanthropic organisation devoted to pushing the development of vaccines, and in the past six months has focused its efforts on COVID-19.
The candidate vaccine under development at the University of Queensland recently completed pre-clinical trials, which researchers said show high levels of antibodies needed to protect people against the virus. It is set to enter the first phase of clinical trials in July, with 120 people to take part. If that trial is successful, stage two trials involving 800 to 1000 people would take place late in the year.
The funding from the global giants is a vote of confidence in the University of Queensland's efforts, although CEPI chair Jane Halton said the organisation was focused on having "as many shots on goal" when it comes to a vaccine, and said more than one successful vaccine would ultimately be needed to to beat the virus.
The organisation's scientific committee had examined the University of Queensland project, as well as many others of the dozens under development, and found it promising.
"To get funding from CEPI in the first instance it is particularly good project, it received ringing endorsement from our scientific advisory committee and that is the basis on which we've invested," Ms Halton said.
While leaders at CEPI and CSL were optimistic about the chance of success for the vaccine in a call with reporters on Friday, they emphasised there were still many milestones for the candidate vaccine to meet before it could be considered for wide use in humans.
Announcing a partner for distribution this early in the development of a vaccine is unusual, but the leaders said it was important that there were no delays to the production of a vaccine if trials proved successful.
"We also know that we cannot afford to wait until we know whether a vaccine works before ensuring we can produce it at scale," Ms Halton said.
If clinical trials are successful, the university believes a vaccine could be available for distribution in 2021. Early large-scale production of the vaccine would happen at CSL's facilities in Melbourne, and the company believes if the vaccine was successful, it could produce up to one hundred million doses by the end of 2021.
If the candidate was successful, it would be distributed through a global access mechanism, that is still under development to ensure those most in need get access to the vaccine first. CSL would also have a portion of doses it would be able to distribute, detail on which is "yet to come".
University of Queensland has already received $10.6 million from CEPI for a rapid response vaccine platform in 2019, but neither CEPI or CSL put a dollar figure on their most recent commitments on Friday.
"We're committed to resourcing this for success and we're going to go at this very hard," CSL's chief scientific officer Andrew Cuthbertson said.
"Having CSL, an Australian-based global biotech leader, take our vaccine forward is a fantastic result for the dedicated research team who have worked tirelessly since January on this project, which will benefit Australians and the world," the university's vice-chancellor Peter Hoj said.