By Nicholas Holt
Queensland University of Technology’s Professor Peter Waterhouse believes that an ancient Australian plant could be used to mass produce a vaccine for COVID-19.
Once a vaccine is developed and tested, researchers are faced with a significant stumbling block: the cure needs to be rapidly produced – and in bulk. A possible solution to this problem is to use plants.
The native Australian plant, Nicotiana benthamiana, or the ‘benth’, has been used all over the world to mass produce vaccines, including for the deadly Ebola virus.
DNA instructions for the vaccine could be injected or infiltrated into the plant’s leaves. That plant can then produce the vaccine in its cells and in its sap.
“We are now making this unpublished information available to any team working on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic,” Professor Waterhouse said.
“This will allow them to ‘tweak’ the genome to produce better quality vaccines and therapeutics that are tailor-made for use in humans.”
The ancient plant has 60,000 genomes –about twice the number of an ordinary plant.
“It’s a special plant because it is being used for a wide spectrum of vaccines and antibodies, including those for Ebola and now for COVID-19,” Professor Waterhouse said.
“Plants don’t usually produce antibodies, it’s something that animals do.”
COVID-19 has caused the largest and most deadly pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu – with the global death toll currently sitting at about 170,000. Public and private research groups are now working around the clock to develop protein-based diagnostic reagents and vaccines for fighting the pandemic.
If and when the vaccine is discovered, Professor Waterhouse’s research could be instrumental in saving millions of lives.
“As we go forward, there will always be a need to rapidly respond to new strains of viruses as they emerge. In recent years we have seen SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19,” Professor Waterhouse said.
Professor Waterhouse’s findings come at a time when global confidence for a Coronavirus vaccine is low.
Renowned Australian immunologist Professor Ian Frazer told A Current Affair last week that Australians need to be realistic about their hopes for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Even if the animal testing suggests that this is possibly an effective vaccine, it will take at least a year to get through all necessary steps,” Professor Frazer said.
“From having a potential vaccine, working out how to scale up production of it, going to tests for safety in humans and eventually tests in the community to see if it’s effective.”
Professor Frazer said it was likely that many Australians would contract the virus, but that government mandates were mitigating the severity of COVID-19.
“This is a fairly infectious virus and I think it would be highly difficult to contain it even with all of the measures that we’re now putting in place in Australia,” Professor Frazer said.
“This is not something to panic about, this is something to accept and get on with life and make sure we are ready for whatever happens. The good news is if we can slow the epidemic down with all this social distancing and hand washing.
“The epidemic will probably run its course in a year. All the modelling suggests that’s what will happen.”