PERTH, Australia – As of Feb. 12, Australia’s Department of Health confirmed 15 cases of novel coronavirus in Australia (five in Queensland, four in New South Wales, four in Victoria and two in South Australia). Of the confirmed 15 cases, five people have recovered and the others are in stable condition.
The Department of Health reported that all of the cases in Australia of the novel coronavirus (initially dubbed 2019-nCov and officially named COVID-19 by the WHO on Feb. 11) came from Wuhan, except for one person in New South Wales who had contact in China with a confirmed case in Wuhan.
Globally, 43,113 cases of coronavirus were confirmed, with 1,018 reported deaths. The fatality rate is 2.36%.
The Australian government is warning its citizens not to travel to mainland China. It has assisted 538 Australians to leave Wuhan, and they are now quarantined at the North West Point Immigration Detention Center on Christmas Island and at the Howard Springs Accommodation facility on the outskirts of Darwin. After 14 days of quarantine, they will be able to return home once they are medially cleared.
The government has placed travel restrictions on people coming from mainland China, denying entry to “anyone who has left or transited mainland China from Feb. 1,” with the exception of Australian citizens, permanent residents and immediate family members of Australian citizens and permanent residents including spouses, minor dependents and legal guardians.
All other foreign nationals who were in mainland China on or after Feb. 1 “will not be allowed to enter Australia until 14 days after they have left mainland China,” the Department of Home Affairs said.
Fears are mounting over Indonesia’s response to the coronavirus as no cases have been reported there, despite cases reported in nearby Thailand (32), Singapore (43), Vietnam (14), Malaysia (18), Cambodia (one) and the Philippines (three).
The World Health Organization also urged Indonesia to do more to prepare for an outbreak amid concerns that the country of 270 million has not reported a single case of infection.
Genetic sequencing will allow for diagnostic, vaccine
The University of Queensland (UQ) is gearing up to use its recently developed rapid response technology to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus that could be available in as little as six months.
The “molecular clamp” technology provides stability to the viral proteins that are the primary target of the immune defense system. The technology was designed as a platform approach to generate vaccines against a range of human and animal viruses.
Paul Young, head of UQ’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, said the technology for rapidly generating vaccines is based on knowledge about the virus’ genetic sequence.
“We’ve had some extremely promising results so far from trials targeting viruses such as influenza, Ebola, Nipah and MERS coronavirus,” he said.
“The team hopes to develop a vaccine over the next six months, which may be used to help contain this outbreak,” he said, noting that it would be distributed to first responders to help contain the virus.
Australia’s CSL Ltd. said on Feb. 12 that it was partnering with the University of Queensland’s COVID-19 vaccine development program.
“We will provide technical expertise as well as a donation of Seqirus’ proprietary adjuvant technology, MF59, to their preclinical development program,” the company said.
“The University of Queensland’s research program is just starting, and it will be some months before the success of the program will be known. In the preclinical development stage, this is a humanitarian effort, not a commercial one, and CSL is contributing its support to our partners due to the critical need of this public health emergency,” CSL said.
Meanwhile, scientists from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne have successfully grown the Wuhan coronavirus from a patient sample, which will provide international laboratories with crucial information. This is the first time the virus has been grown in cell culture outside of China, according to the Doherty Institute.
Julian Druce, head of the Virus Identification Laboratory at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said that was a significant breakthrough that would allow accurate diagnosis of the virus globally.
“Chinese officials released the genome sequence of this novel coronavirus, which is helpful for diagnosis; however, having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities. It will be a game-changer for diagnosis,” Druce said.
“The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the World Health Organization in Europe.”
Mike Catton, deputy director of the Doherty Institute, said that possession of a virus isolate extended what could be achieved with molecular technology in the fight against that virus.
The Doherty Institute-grown virus is expected to be used to generate an antibody test, which allows detection of the virus in patients who haven’t displayed symptoms.
“An antibody test will enable us to retrospectively test suspected patients so we can gather a more accurate picture of how widespread the virus is, and consequently, among other things, the true mortality rate,” Catton said. “It will also assist in the assessment of effectiveness of trial vaccines.”
The virus was grown from a patient sample that arrived at the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) at the Doherty Institute on Jan. 24.
Biotron Ltd. said it was evaluating several compounds for activity against the coronavirus. The company has more than 30 compounds that show promising activity against a range of coronaviruses.
Those compounds can reduce the levels of coronavirus by 90% to 100% in infected cell cultures, and several compounds have broad-spectrum activity against multiple strains of coronaviruses. The company is now testing a select set of those compounds against COVID-19. That work will be done under contract in specialist laboratories that have access to the new virus, which has been isolated and made available in recent days.
Biotron’s priority will be testing its compounds that have shown broad-spectrum activity against different coronaviruses.
Biotron’s core expertise lies in the design and development of drugs that target virus-encoded proteins known as viroporins. The company’s scientists were the first to identify and publish data showing that the E protein of the coronavirus is viroporin and a good target for antiviral drugs.
While Biotron’s focus has been on its lead clinical HIV-1 eradication candidate and its preclinical hepatitis B virus programs, the company has continued to progress earlier-stage research on developing drugs to target respiratory infections, including coronaviruses.