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Coronavirus vaccine trials run by UQ and CSL abandoned due to false positive HIV results

Trials of a COVID-19 vaccine by the University of Queensland in partnership with CSL are abandoned after participants returned false positive HIV test results.

Clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Queensland in partnership with biotech company CSL have been abandoned after trial participants returned false positive HIV test results.

Key points:
  • Human clinical trials of the UQ and CSL vaccine had been conducted since July
  • But the antibodies produced by the vaccine can interfere with certain HIV diagnostic tests
  • There is no possibility the vaccine caused infection

The vaccine is one of four the Federal Government had committed to purchasing, and agreements had been made to secure 51 million doses of the vaccine.

In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange, CSL said it would not progress with trials, however stressed the vaccine had a "strong safety profile".

CSL also said participants were told before the trial started that the vaccine could interfere with certain HIV diagnostic tests.

"The potential for this cross-reaction had been anticipated prior to the commencement of the trial," it said.

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But, as first reported by Nine Entertainment newspapers, it said there was no possibility the vaccine caused infection, and routine follow-up tests confirmed no HIV virus was present.

The statement said that in order for the vaccine to be released, it would require "significant changes" to HIV testing procedures.

UQ vaccine co-lead Paul Young said fixing the vaccine would have set back development by another year.

"I think there's probably a single word that sums it up, it's 'devastated'," he said.

"The last 24 hours or so have been particularly difficult. The last 11 months we've been living and breathing this project … it's challenging times, but that's science.

"While this is a tough decision to take, the urgent need for a vaccine has to be everyone's priority."

'Not a surprise' one vaccine abandoned, PM says

Just last month, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the vaccine could be widely available by late 2021 after early trials showed promising signs.

But on Friday he said the Government had always factored in that one or multiple vaccines would not be successful.

"I think it's important to understand that we planned in all of our contracts, for the potential either to discontinue … or to expand the number of vaccines," Mr Hunt said.

"So, for example, we're increasing our AstraZeneca purchase by 20 million units, that was envisaged within the contract."

A woman holds up a needle next to a vial.A woman holds up a needle next to a vial.
The Government has also bought doses of vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca for Australia's vaccine strategy.(AP: Frank Augstein/Pool)

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.

"The system's working as it should and Australians are protected, as always."

Head of the Health Department and former Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said other than the false positive HIV test the trial was looking effective and promising.

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Human trials began in July with 120 volunteers in Brisbane.

The vaccine has been manufactured at CSL's biologics facility in Victoria and was developed using an existing UQ technology called a "molecular clamp".

The clamp is a patented system that is designed to stimulate an immune response and protect against people developing COVID-19.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the news was disappointing.

"I know they've been working night and day," she said.

"But of course, there are going to be some winners and losers when it comes to vaccines.

"I'm very proud of the work and the effort that they have put in to actually getting to this stage.

"Of course, we're disappointed and now all eyes are looking at what is happening in the UK with the rollout of their vaccine," she said.

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Annastacia Palaszczuk says she is 'very disappointed' the University of Queensland has had to scrap its COVID vaccine trial

Federal frontbencher David Littleproud told Channel Nine the Government's multi-vaccine strategy is specifically designed to spread the risk.

"This is why we didn't put all our eggs in one basket," he said.

"This is why we made sure there were four contracts we signed to make sure that we got a vaccine, and this is intrinsically very difficult science that UQ and around the world is trying to break.

"I think UQ, I wouldn't write them off yet, but I think this backs what the Government has done."

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