Combatting the COVID-19 crisis

Combatting the COVID-19 crisis

Illuminate newsletter index page, June 2020
June 2020

Profesor Marc Pellegrini
COVID SHIELD study co-lead Professor Marc Pellegrini in
the Institute's National Drug Discovery Centre.

As the global community tackles the COVID-19 pandemic, we are working with our collaborators on developing diagnostics and finding new drugs and treatments. Our shared goal is to improve healthcare in response
 to COVID-19, as well as potential future pandemic viruses.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton AO said the Institute was leveraging its substantial knowledge of infections, immunology and drug discovery, and access to state-of-the-art technologies, to drive research forward.

“We’ve wasted no time in launching innovative programs in collaboration with partners across medical research and commercial sectors, hospitals and universities to address the current COVID-19 pandemic and potential future coronaviral outbreaks,” Professor Hilton said.

Gold standard prevention trial

In May the Institute launched a gold standard clinical trial to assess whether the drug hydroxychloroquine can prevent COVID-19 in high-risk healthcare workers.

COVID SHIELD is a major collaborative effort led by the Institute in partnership with human data science company IQVIA and healthcare providers across the country, including in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

Professor Marc Pellegrini, who is co-leading the trial, said rigorous trials of hydroxychloroquine around the world were essential to determine whether it was useful as a preventative therapy for COVID-19.

“COVID SHIELD is an important study because there is currently no definitive evidence from randomised, double-blinded clinical trials to determine whether hydroxychloroquine works, or doesn’t work, as a preventative agent in healthy people,” Professor Pellegrini said.

COVID SHIELD has been rigorously reviewed and approved by an independent NHMRC Human Research Ethics Committee, as well as independently peer-reviewed and endorsed by the Australasian Society of Infectious Diseases and the Melbourne Academic Centre for Health.

To find out more visit our COVID SHIELD FAQs page.

Associate Professor Marco Herold
Associate Professor Marco Herold is working on a rapid diagnostic
test for COVID-19.

A rapid test for COVID-19

Institute researchers are also working on developing a new diagnostic tool for coronavirus called c-FIND.

The test is being developed to detect infections in people within minutes – much faster than existing tests – and to detect viral infections even if a person shows no symptoms.

Study co-lead Associate Professor Marco Herold said c-FIND could enable rapid, accurate, point-of-care screening at places such as hospitals, clinics and airports.

“Having a test like this would help us to identify, isolate and manage people infected with COVID-19 swiftly and proactively to prevent disease spread."

"It would enable us to screen people who are negative for the virus, which will help us to continue lifting restrictions and resume some normal activities,” Associate Professor Herold said.

“Together with our collaborators from across Australia, we are now applying for funding through the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) to take this research to the next level.

"This project is a great example of innovative technology, led by Australian researchers in collaboration with industry to deliver a commercially-viable and competitive product to Australia and the world,” he said.

Hon Min Greg Hunt with Institute researchers
(L-R) The Australian Health Minister the Hon Greg Hunt MP
(left) with Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham (centre) and
Professor David Komander (right).

Searching for new medicines

Anti-viral drugs that prevent or treat COVID-19 and potential future coronaviruses are being developed by Institute researchers and their collaborators.

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham is leading a collaborative consortium from CSL, Affinity Bio, CSIRO, Burnet Institute and Kirby Institute, developing anti-virals that mimic naturally occurring antibodies that provide immunity to COVID-19. The team received $2.5 million in funding from the Australian and Victorian governments.

“Our consortium is searching for antibodies that block the interaction between the ‘lock and key’ system that SARS-CoV-2 uses to invade human lung cells.

"If we can block these proteins’ interactions, we stop the virus infecting a cell,” she said.

“Biologics medicines for COVID-19 could be important tools for preventing infections as well as treating people in the early stages of the disease.”

Professor David Komander received $1 million in funding from the MRFF to search for drugs that block the coronavirus protein PLpro, which could potentially be used to treat people in early stages of COVID-19, as well as to protect people from infection.

“The virus uses PLpro to disable the cell’s in-built ‘burglar alarm’ system, allowing the virus to hide and multiply undetected, particularly in the early stages of infection.

“The virus changes what is called ‘ubiquitin signalling’. In the new Ubiquitin Signalling Division at the Institute, we are perfectly placed to understand the viral proteins and reverse the viruses’ action,” Professor Komander said.

“This in-depth understanding, plus access to facilities such as the National Drug Discovery Centre and the Australian Synchrotron, means we are at the forefront internationally in developing new medicines to tackle potential future disease outbreaks caused by other coronaviruses.”

Tracking immunity to COVID-19

A new blood test developed by Institute researchers for eliminating Plasmodium vivax malaria is now being adapted to track immunity to COVID-19.

Epidemiologist Professor Ivo Mueller, who is leading the research, said the new technique allowed researchers to look in detail at the amounts of different antibodies in the blood to pinpoint whether – and importantly when – a person has been exposed to COVID-19.

“In the next six months we hope to have discovered how these antibodies change over time, meaning we can explore immunity in wider groups in the community, especially in regions where COVID-19 could be spreading undetected,” Professor Mueller said.


Donate to COVID-19 research

Super Content: 

Answers to some frequently asked questions about COVID SHIELD, the clinical trial looking at hydroxychloroquine as a preventative therapy for COVID-19.

Clinician with patient

Australia's first clinical trial to determine whether hydoroxychloroquine can prevent COVID-19 is open. The trial is recruiting frontline and allied healthcare workers from hospitals across the country.

Health Minister Greg Hunt with Institute researchers

The Australian Government will invest $3M in Walter and Eliza Hall Institute research programs that are developing new classes of medicines for COVID-19.

Scientist in the National Drug Discovery Centre

The NDDC enables medical researchers to access ultra-high throughput screening, fast tracking scientific discoveries into new medicines.  

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