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Coronavirus vaccine from UQ and CSL abandoned after HIV response which scientists say was 'unexpected'

Scientists behind the UQ coronavirus vaccine are "devastated" over the decision to abandon the trial, but say it was "risk-based decision" to maintain public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine process.

Scientists behind the UQ coronavirus vaccine are "devastated" over the decision to abandon the trial, but say it was a "risk-based decision" to maintain public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine process.

Key points:
  • Clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Queensland (UQ) and CSL have been abandoned
  • Researchers say the vaccine generated antibodies that led to "false-positive" HIV test results
  • The UQ-CSL team said they did not anticipate the "false-positive" reaction and decided to abandon the trial to maintain public confidence

Speaking on a conference call after the decision was made public early on Friday, the leaders of the team said the UQ vaccine developed a "robust" immune response and was safe.

But UQ researchers working on the trials involving 216 people found the vaccine generated additional antibodies that tripped up some HIV tests, leading to false-positive results in those tests.

The UQ vaccine's molecular clamp technology uses two fragments of a protein found in HIV that were used to hold together the key part of the SARS-Cov-2 virus, so the immune system could learn to recognise it.

The team said using the protein found in HIV gave them "the greatest stability" in the vaccine's early development and enabled them to speed up the process, as hundreds of research teams around the world this year pushed to find a COVID-19 vaccine.

The researchers said there were no adverse health implications and no possibility that it would cause HIV infection.

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However, in light of the number of vaccines recently releasing successful trial results, the team behind the vaccine said a decision was made to abandon development of the UQ vaccine in its current form.

"The last 24 hours have been particularly difficult for the team," Professor Paul Young, the head of the UQ's vaccine team, said.

"We're devastated. The last 11 months we've been living and breathing this particular project. It's challenging times.

"But that's science."

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Professor Young said the team did not anticipate the "false-positive" reaction, but reiterated the molecular clamp technology was safe and effective.

However, the decision to abandon the vaccine in its current form was decided in consultation with the Australian Government and CSL.

The Government had committed to buying 51 million doses of the UQ vaccine, if it passed all regulatory approvals. That was expected by mid-next year.

The Government was advised of the HIV false-positive test results on Monday.

It has since bought rights to 20 million additional vaccines from Oxford-AstraZeneca and an additional 11 million from Novavax.

The ABC understands because the bulk of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be manufactured locally by CSL, the Government believes all Australians will now be fully vaccinated by October 2021, instead of December 2021.

The March rollout date for the first vaccines to be distributed around Australia remains unchanged.

'The unexpected finding'

Professor Young said they were anticipating there might be an issue with the HIV protein, and included it on the original consent forms for the trial participants.

"But we weren't expecting that all of the [trial participants] would respond with this low-level antibody that was picked up in the tests.

"That was the unexpected finding."

Russell Basser, from CSL, said a "critical" element of abandoning the vaccine in its current form was to maintain public confidence in the vaccine development process.

A man in a suit and glasses outside a buildingA man in a suit and glasses outside a building
Russell Basser said it was an extremely hard decision to abandon the vaccine.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

"It was a risk-based decision," he said.

"If there were no other vaccines in the works and this [vaccine] was the one that was potentially finding a solution to COVID then we might have persisted," Dr Basser said.

"But [this] overhanging issue and the need to maintain confidence in the process was a very important part.

"It seemed to get harder [to proceed] the more we looked at it.

"And we felt the burden was probably too great. And there were other options [for the public]."

The team at UQ said it would now continue to research the molecular clamp technology outside of using the two fragments of a protein found in HIV.

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National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance director Professor Kristine Macartney told the ABC the HIV element was clearly a "practical problem" and the decision to abandon the vaccine was "wise".

Professor Macartney, who is advising the Government on its COVID-19 vaccine response, said continuing with it could have caused confusion.

"It perhaps could be misconstrued, or cause lack of confidence in the vaccine," she said.

"But what we must remember with vaccines is that there are many, many different phases going into human trials.

"And each of these processes are designed to ensure they're safe and effective and suitable to be used in the population.

"Upwards of 90 per cent of products never make it, and many [like UQ's] don't make it out of phase 1."

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Julie Leask, a social scientist from the University of Sydney who specialises in vaccination, said the issue of public confidence was probably a secondary consideration for the UQ-CSL team, since it could be well managed.

"There are already conspiracy theories coming out based on this story," she said.

"It's going to happen either way.

"They just don't want to have a vaccine that interferes with a HIV testing program. We can deal with public concerns about a lot of things."

Earlier today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said abandoning the trial should show Australians the Government and researchers were proceeding carefully.

"What happened today is not a surprise to the Government," he said.

"We are moving swiftly but not with any undue haste."

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