Researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) say they have met a key milestone in a fast-tracked bid to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
The team, working as part of the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations rapid response programme, have created their first vaccine candidate for the deadly Covid-19 in the lab after just three weeks.
The candidate will move immediately into further development before formal preclinical testing, the university announced on Friday.
"There is still extensive testing to ensure that the vaccine candidate is safe and creates an effective immune response, but the technology and the dedication of these researchers means the first hurdle has been passed," UQ Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Hoj said in a statement.
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UQ says the proof-of-concept shows the feasibility of using its "molecular clamp" technology to engineer a vaccine candidate that could be more readily recognised by the immune system, triggering a protective immune response.
"We've been using this technology to produce vaccines for some of the world's biggest viruses including Ebola, Mers coronavirus and nipah," Dr Keith Chappell, senior research fellow and UQ's School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said in an explanatory video.
"But this technology is also designed to be able to quickly respond to a currently unknown virus ... We've put together a group of some of Australia's leading academic institutions, with the goal of reducing the time required for vaccine development down from multiple years to a matter of weeks."
The next stage is to produce this on a larger scale needed for additional testing, to determine its effectiveness against the virus. Researchers said the early research had gone "as expected" and the material created had the properties which allowed the team to proceed with vaccine development.
UQ says it could begin "investigational clinical testing" after the middle of the year. It's one of only three programs globally, and the only one in Australia, initiated by CEPI, leveraging "rapid response" platforms in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The outbreak, which began in December, has already killed more than 2200 people and infected more than 75,500 in China. More than 1150 people have also been infected and more than a dozen have died across 27 other countries.