In a major breakthrough in the global fight against coronavirus, scientists in Australia have developed a lab-grown version of the disease.
- Australian scientists have become the world’s first outside of China to recreate the coronavirus
- The discovery will enable scientists to develop a test to identify people who might be infected, even before they show any symptoms
- It will also help speed up work towards a vaccine for the disease, which has claimed more than 100 lives in China and infected five Australians
Described as a “game changer” that will help scientists determine whether a future vaccine is effective, experts at Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity on Tuesday became the world’s first scientific lab outside of China to recreate the virus.
They will now share it with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Europe, which will in turn share it with labs worldwide — including one from Queensland — involved in the worldwide race to develop a vaccine.
The team of scientists grew the virus from a patient who had been infected since Friday.
The ABC was in the lab the moment scientists discovered they had successfully grown the virus, with Mike Catton, the co-deputy director of the Doherty Institute, confirming it with three words.
“We got it,” he said. “Fantastic.”
Dr Catton told the ABC the discovery was “vitally important” and would become a critical part of the tool kit to show if vaccines work, with scientists able to test any potential vaccine against a lab-grown version of the disease.
It will also enable researchers to develop a test to identify people who might be infected with the virus, even before they show any symptoms.
Right now in Australia, patients with initial coronavirus symptoms undergo testing in hospital, with samples sent to the Doherty Institute, the only lab in Australia that can test samples a second time and give a 100 per cent answer about whether someone is infected or not.
But this could all change following Tuesday’s discovery.
Doherty Institute lead scientist Julian Druce, who was there with Dr Catton at the moment of discovery, described it as a significant development in the global understanding of the virus, and for the response to it.
“This will be a game changer for other labs within Australia,” Dr Druce said.
Growing the virus will also help experts understand more about how coronavirus behaves.
The Doherty Institute is the second lab in the world to recreate the disease. A lab in China was the first, but did not share its discovery with the WHO.
However, the same lab released images of the genetic sequence of the disease, which helped scientists at the Doherty Institute recreate it.
Dr Druce said scientists at the institute had been working hard to understand more about the illness, which has already claimed at least 106 lives in China and infected another 4,200 people worldwide.
“It’s been 10-12 hour days, 2:00am finishes; so it’s been pretty full on,” he said.
“We’ve designed and planned for an exercise like this for many years. This is what the Doherty Institute was built for.
“And that’s really why we’re able to get an answer from Friday to today [of] diagnosis, detection, sequencing, and isolation.”
Australia ‘alert not alarmed’
Dr Catton, who is also the pathologist supervising at The Doherty Institute, said Australian scientific facilities were well prepared to deal with outbreaks like the coronavirus.
“This virus qualifies as a three out of four, so it’s a level three virus and that’s based off our understanding of SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome), which are its close cousins,” Dr Catton said.
“It’s dangerous, it does kill some people, but it hasn’t got the lethality that viruses like Ebola do.”
But he said early diagnosis of a disease outbreak like the coronavirus was important because it gave health authorities around the world a better chance of containing its spread or, at the least, its severity.
What is different is how much more mobile the world is, he said.
“I’d still say we’re alert but not alarmed,” Dr Catton said.
“We shared the view of national health authorities that it was likely there would be cases in Australia. That didn’t happen with SARS, which is a similar virus.
“I think it’s something like 150 million visits more each year with China to countries like Australia than was true back then.”
At this stage, coronavirus does not have a death rate as high as SARS.
“SARS we know had a death rate — a mortality rate — of about 10 per cent. This [coronavirus] appears to be 3 per cent; my personal opinion is it will turn out to be lower than that,” Dr Catton said.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said in Australia there has been no known human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus.
“There is no cause for concern in the Australian public, there is no human to human transmission of this virus,” he said.
“It’s important to note because we had some media [ask] about masks today; there is no need for the Australian public to wear masks.”
Those who have the illness are being kept in isolation.
All Australian-based patients are in stable conditions.
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