The Australian government cancelled its homegrown covid-19 vaccine development plans with the University of Queensland on Friday after vaccine trial participants showed “false positives” in tests for HIV. The Australian vaccine was developed using a protein fragment of HIV called Gp41 that’s used to stabilise the inoculation.
The Australian vaccine was still in Phase 1 trials with just 216 volunteer participants, but researchers had been working on development of this vaccine for nearly 11 months. The vaccine didn’t show any other safety concerns, aside from the false positive HIV tests, but that alone would simply be unacceptable if it occurred in the general population.
“Trial participants were fully informed of the possibility of a partial immune response to [the HIV protein fragment], but it was unexpected that the levels induced would interfere with certain HIV tests,” the University of Queensland announced in a press release on Friday.
While no one in the study actually contracted HIV, their immune systems created antibodies to the virus, which showed up on HIV tests. Researchers at the University of Queensland knew about the HIV false positives for weeks and tried to find a workaround, but ultimately couldn’t move forward with the trials after consulting with top officials in the government, according to the Brisbane Times.
Australia’s federal government, which has invested millions of dollars in the vaccine’s development, was informed of the roadblock and only decided to pull funding sometime over the past 24 hours or so. The roughly 500 people who worked on the vaccine’s creation were reportedly devastated their work wouldn’t continue, as one can imagine.
“I said at the start of vaccine development that there were no guarantees, but what is really encouraging is that the core technology approach we used has passed the major clinical test,” the University of Queensland’s vaccine co-lead, Professor Paul Young, said in a statement published online.
“It is a safe and well-tolerated vaccine, producing the strong virus-neutralising effect that we were hoping to see. So we will continue to push forward and we are confident that with further work the Molecular Clamp technology will be a robust platform for future vaccine development here in Australia and to meet future biosecurity needs.”
The University of Queensland and its partner organisations will now pivot to manufacturing the UK-developed AstraZeneca vaccine under licence for Australia’s population of roughly 26 million people. Australia has already purchased 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which should be available in March, assuming it gains regulatory approval in the country.
But even without a vaccine, Australia has fared relatively well during the covid-19 pandemic. Australia has reported just 28,012 cases of coronavirus since the pandemic began earlier this year, and just 908 deaths, according to the latest figures from Australia’s Department of Health.
Victoria, Australia’s second largest state, had a bad second wave of the pandemic flare up in July, but the state government imposed a strict lockdown for three months that effectively eliminated the virus in the entire country. Australia hasn’t had community spread of the disease for seven days and life is largely back to normal for most people.
The U.S. the worst hit country in the world during the pandemic, has reported 15.6 million cases as of Friday morning and over 292,179 deaths. The U.S. saw 3,076 deaths on Thursday alone, according to the Covid Tracking Project, higher than the number of people killed during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
And experts warn those deaths from Thursday are mostly people who were infected in mid-November, notably before Thanksgiving — a superspreader holiday that’s expected to show up in the official death statistics in the coming weeks and months. Every respected public health expert in America is warning people not to travel for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. But Americans didn’t listen to those same warnings during Thanksgiving. Travel by car fell just 5% on U.S. roads over Thanksgiving weekend.