COVID-19

Our goal is to develop much-needed treatments and rapid diagnostic tools for COVID-19, so that we can begin a safe return to normal life.

We are…

COVID-19 is a novel pandemic disease that has caused worldwide devastation since it first emerged in late 2019.

In the past 20 years, there have been three serious coronavirus disease outbreaks – SARS, MERS and COVID-19.

There are many different types of coronavirus that exist in nature. They vary in which species they can infect, and in the severity of disease they cause.

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

Coronaviruses typically infect the respiratory tract. They vary in the severity of disease that they cause – some cause relatively mild diseases such as the common cold, while others cause more serious lung diseases, including pneumonia.

Right now, we are exploring the effects of an antibody cocktail on COVID-19.

Antibodies are key infection-fighting proteins in our immune system. An important aspect of antibodies is that they bind tightly and specifically to another protein, such as those on the surface of viruses. This is how they prevent viruses from infecting cells and help remove them from the body.

Nanobodies are unique antibodies – tiny immune proteins – produced naturally by alpacas in response to infection.

As part of this research, a group of alpacas in regional Victoria were immunised with a synthetic, non-infectious part of the SARS-CoV-2 ‘spike’ protein, which cause them to make nanobodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham, who led the research, said establishing a nanobody platform at WEHI allowed an agile response for the development of antiviral therapies against COVID-19.

“The synthetic spike protein is not infectious and does not cause the alpacas to develop disease – but it allows them to develop nanobodies.”

– Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham

“We extract the gene sequences encoding the nanobodies and use this to produce millions of types of nanobodies in the laboratory. Then we select the ones that best bind to the spike protein.”

Associate Professor Tham said the leading nanobodies that block virus entry were then made into an ‘antibody cocktail’.

“By combining the two leading nanobodies into this antibody cocktail, we were able to test its effectiveness at blocking SARS-CoV-2 from entering cells and reducing viral loads in preclinical models,” she said.

The research program brings together the expertise of leaders in infectious diseases and antibody therapeutics at WEHI, Doherty Institute, CSL, Affinity Bio, CSIRO, Burnet Institute and Kirby Institute.

Together we are responding to the greatest community need.

We are studying the immune responses of people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine and people who have recovered from COVID-19 infections.

Dr Emily Eriksson (left) and Dr Vanessa Bryant (right) are studying immunity through COVID PROFILE

Understanding how immunity to COVID-19 develops, how long it lasts and what happens when immunity is lost is vital for developing vaccination strategies and enabling us to navigate a return to pre-pandemic life.

We are also working with our collaborators on ‘genetic signatures’ associated with people who develop severe COVID-19, which will help with treatment and possibly identify new therapeutic targets.

We are discovering new medicines against coronaviruses with partners and experts around the globe.

A scientist working in the National Drug Discovery Centre at WEHI

We are using the National Drug Discovery Centre (NDDC), a collaborative facility funded by donors, WEHI and the Victorian and Australian governments. The NDDC enables researchers from across Australia to accelerate the discovery and development of new medicines.

We are also assessing existing medicines for their activity against COVID-19, which could also help in treating future coronavirus outbreaks.

We are discovering and developing antiviral medicines that stop COVID-19 infections.

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham is developing antibody cocktails to fight COVID-19

COVID-19 treatments are still essential for people who have not or cannot be vaccinated against COVID-19, people who are immunocompromised and in people with severe disease.

Our researchers are leading a collaborative effort to develop ‘antibody cocktails’ to fight COVID-19 infection. They are also developing antivirals that target the machinery of coronaviruses, which could be effective against original viral strains as well as viral variants that can escape immune protection.

We are working with our partners to develop new rapid diagnostic tools for identifying COVID-19 and other infections.

Associate Professor Aaron Jex (left, with Ms Joy Liu) is supporting wastewater testing for COVID-19 in Victoria

These tools would enable people to be diagnosed on-the-spot within minutes – not hours – even in people with no symptoms. The diagnostic tools may be suitable for rapid screening of people at hospitals, general practice clinics or airports.

We are also working with collaborators to support wastewater testing in Victoria for early detection of community infections. This includes using our advanced technologies to develop methods for detecting specific viral strains from wastewater samples, which to date has not been possible.

We are researchers with longstanding expertise in infectious disease and immunology.

Our history includes transformative discoveries that underpin new medicines that have changed millions of lives.

1936

Pioneering the technique of growing influenza in chicken eggs, still used to make flu vaccines.

The technique, WEHI’s first major contribution to the field of virology, paved the way to mass-produce vaccines, allowing easier, cheaper and higher volume production of the flu virus vaccine globally.

1949-53

Solving the mysteries of how pandemic viruses emerge and escape immune detection

In the 1940s and 50s, WEHI scientists’ focus was on understanding the infectious diseases that devastated our community.

Several key discoveries by our researchers push forward our understanding of viruses.

They show flu viruses are made of highly unstable RNA (not DNA), and can exchange genetic material to create new strains. This explains why the virus mutates and how pandemic flu viruses emerge. It also explains how these viruses evade immune detection, providing crucial insights for future vaccine development.

They also discover an ‘anchor’ protein on the virus that inspired other Australian researchers to develop the first flu drugs in the 1980s.

1957

Burnet’s clonal selection theory creates a revolution in immunology

Nobel Laureate Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet publishes a newly developed theory of clonal selection, that explains how the immune system is able to make antibodies that fight so many different types of infection.

The theory revolutionises our understanding of immunity. It is now the foundation of our understanding of what is called ‘adaptive’ immunity – the part of our immune system that is able to recognise and destroy specific targets. Burnet considered it his most important scientific contribution.

1968

Scientists discover T and B cells, and show they collaborate to generate immunity

Professor Jacques Miller is lauded as the father of modern immunology. In 1968, he and PhD student Graham Mitchell proved that cells from the thymus (T cells) help cells from the bone marrow (B cells) to generate antibodies, revealing that immune cell collaboration and communication is central to immunity.

It is a ground-breaking discovery – so much so that many had difficulty accepting it. The scientists are later showered with honours and prizes for the discovery.

“There isn’t a single advance in vaccine, immunotherapy or autoimmunity research that doesn’t incorporate (his) thinking.” – Australian Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty, on Professor Jacques Miller’s contributions to immunology.

1997

Finding the ‘seat’ of immune memory

WEHI scientists track ‘memory’ B cells – responsible for lifelong immunity – to the bone marrow, making a crucial discovery about how we develop long-lasting immune protection against disease.

They show how critical memory B cells are ‘trained’ inside lymph nodes early in infection, and those cells that make the superior antibodies that are most effective at fighting infection are sent to live in the bone marrow, where they spend the rest of their life – and yours – producing antibodies in response to new encounters with old enemies.

Immune memory explains how vaccines provide us with long-lasting protection against disease.

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