CSIRO is involved in key research in the rapid global response to the novel coronavirus outbreak. We aim to pass on as much accurate information as we can, as quickly as possible regarding this research. To do this we have sourced updates and quotes from our experts about their work and the latest developments in the outbreak.

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This page was last updated 6 August 2020.

Transcript to come.

COVID-19 vaccine milestone announcement - CSIRO media briefing :  Virtual media briefing to provide an update on our COVID-19 work. We have started pre-clinical trials for two vaccine candidates. Media briefing held on Thursday 2 April 2020 at 9am.

How humans fight the virus

Melbourne researchers have mapped immune responses from one of Australia’s first novel coronavirus (COVID-19) patients, showing the body’s ability to fight the virus and recover from the infection published in Nature (16 March 2020).

This is a great breakthrough from the Doherty Institute. Understanding how the virus behaves in humans allows us to understand what drugs may work and how to shape a more effective vaccine. When a vaccine candidate moves to clinical trials, this knowledge will enable researchers to move at speed in the final steps of testing a vaccine for safety and efficacy. 

- Dr Rob Grenfell

Understanding the virus

Our first challenge is understanding this new virus. Since SARS, we have new techniques to understand what is going on inside the virus and at a molecular level, and also more technology to understand what is going on, on the surface of the virus. However, it’s important to find out how it behaves in biological systems.

We’ve been very fortunate in being given a sample of virus from the Peter Doherty Institute. We have cultivated the virus, growing it to levels that allow us to understand its genomic sequence and its characteristics. This has allowed us to start testing it in the biological models we’ve previously used for the SARS virus and we then hope to test vaccines and therapeutics.

- Dr Rob Grenfell

CSIRO’s research aims to get a better understanding of the virus - how long it takes to develop and replicate, how it impacts the respiratory system and how it can be transmitted. 

As we are beginning to have a better understanding of the virus, the CSIRO team can soon begin testing new potential vaccines and therapeutics being developed by others to see if they work and are safe.

- Dr Trevor Drew

We are operating at speed in response to a global public health emergency while adhering to strict attention to detail and regulatory requirements which makes this so challenging. We’ve grown the virus for our research and have also reconfirmed the genomic sequence published by the Doherty Institute. Next we’re aiming to get a better understanding of the virus, so CSIRO can begin testing new potential vaccines and therapeutics being developed for efficacy. We have got promising results with our initial susceptibility studies and are in the process of conducting natural disease progression studies. We are also investigating the physical and molecular characterisation of this virus to find differences and similarities with other known coronaviruses.

- Dr S.S. Vasan

Changes in the virus

This virus belongs to a group of viruses that exist not as a single virus but as a cloud of subtly different ones and if it finds a new niche to occupy, it will do that and slowly get better at replicating in the new host or alternatively it might die out.

- Dr Trevor Drew

A coronavirus is what is called an RNA virus. RNA is a molecule that is not as stable as DNA. And this is the reason that coronaviruses are such feisty adversaries, because RNAs can mutate quite rapidly.

The sequencing information we have is showing the virus has changed. There are now about 115 plus genetic sequences globally of this new virus published and they are all a little different. It is a matter of how important those differences are.

But this is the nature of the beast, this is what this type of virus does, and this is why it is challenging to get to the point of proving which drugs or vaccines might work.

- Dr Rob Grenfell

Surgical face masks

We are working together with the Australian Government and Victorian manufacturers’ Textor Technologies and Med-Con in an effort to build local capability and supply of materials to rapidly address demand for medical materials needed to respond to COVID-19.

As part of the collaboration, CSIRO is helping identify and test materials produced by Victorian manufacturer, Textor Technologies, for their performance and potential use in surgical facemasks. We are also developing potential alternative materials that may be used in mask manufacture.

If successful, the materials can be produced in Victoria and supplied to local surgical mask manufacturer, Med-Con, who will grow their operations to meet rapidly increasing demand.

- Dr Keith McLean, CSIRO Manufacturing Director

Australia’s first accredited surgical face mask testing facility

“It’s inspiring to see Australian science enabling Australian businesses to supply life-saving surgical face masks to protect our frontline health care workers – yet another way science is tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This new facility will give Aussie businesses another solution from science to stop the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

“Science is guiding us through COVID-19, and science will help us grow on the other side. There’s not much Aussie innovation can’t solve, whether it’s finding the right vaccine or creating Australia’s first NATA-accredited face mask testing facility.”

- Dr Larry Marshall, Chief Executive, CSIRO

“The new CSIRO facility, accredited by the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA), has the capacity to provide a rapid turnaround on surgical face mask testing.

“The facility underwent rigorous on-site assessments to gain NATA’s accreditation. The laboratory is equipped to conduct tests on single-use surgical masks to determine whether they adequately filter biological particles, resist against blood penetration and enable the wearer to breathe comfortably, to the requirements of Australian Standard AS 4381 and related international Standards.

“The services delivered by CSIRO to surgical mask manufacturers and distributors will provide them with evidence to support registration of their products with the Therapeutics Goods Administration, and therefore ensure that Australia’s health-care workers have access to PPE with reliable performance.”

- Dr Christopher Preston, Team Leader, CSIRO

Study on the genome sequence changes of the novel coronavirus

We have analysed the 181 published genome sequences from the current COVID-19 outbreak to understand how changes in the virus affect its behaviour and impact.

We have confirmed the virus is evolving into a number of distinct clusters in different parts of the world. At this time, we do not think it will affect the development and evaluation of COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and diagnostics, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation.

- Dr S.S. Vasan

Finding the difference amongst 30,000 letters of the viral genome is not an easy task, akin to finding a needle in a haystack.

CSIRO has adapted bioinformatics algorithms, first developed for the human genome, to tackle the problem efficiently.

However, this only gives us a picture of the general genomic variability rather than the individual functional consequences. For example, it is very likely that disease severity is a combination of personal predispositions as well as viral properties.

The team are hence calling on the international community to share more genomic sequences of the virus alongside de-identified information about clinical symptoms and co-morbidities. This will help monitor the changes and form a better understanding of how important genetic differences are to the disease’s progression, potentially leading to better diagnostics and treatment.

- Dr Denis Bauer

Testing potential vaccines and therapeutics

CSIRO has been commissioned to develop a system so that anyone with a candidate vaccine (a vaccine that they think will work but hasn’t yet had proof of efficacy) can just plug it into our system and make the process of testing faster.

It is quite a challenge for us to get this set up, but we hope we’ll have something ready for vaccine producers to use by March or April this year.
We are also looking at preclinical evaluation of therapeutics that could complement vaccines.

- Dr Trevor Drew

Testing vaccines is a complex task. We need to work out a model we can study the virus in and it must then be validated.

- Dr Rob Grenfell

We have designed a staggered challenge study to get timely information on vaccine efficacy, initially with just the prime dose, followed closely by prime and boost. With the Oxford candidate, we are exploring if intranasal administration induces tissue resident immunity to help clear the infection more readily or rapidly. These are mission critical objectives in the current pandemic situation where the number of cases globally, as of 25 March, are doubling roughly every 8 days and the number of deaths roughly every 6-7 days.

- Dr S.S. Vasan

Manufacture of a vaccine

At CSIRO’s state-of-the-art biologics production facility in Melbourne, scientists will begin small-scale production of a vaccine candidate for coronavirus designed at the University of Queensland (UQ). After the initial small-scale testing, we will scale up production of the vaccine candidate using best-practice manufacturing standards for UQ to continue with the next stage of toxicology studies and testing.

- Dr George Lovrecz

University of Queensland’s development of a vaccine candidate

We congratulate the University of Queensland (UQ) on the creation of the vaccine candidate for coronavirus, COVID-19, which was achieved in just three weeks. A huge early achievement in the rapid response to the coronavirus outbreak.

UQ’s vaccine candidate will now move to further testing at CSIRO’s state-of-the-art biologics production facility in Melbourne where our scientists have begun small-scale testing.

Vaccine development for coronavirus is being done through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), which has funded four consortia so far, one of which is led by The University of Queensland (UQ).

- Dr Rob Grenfell

University of Queensland vaccine candidate Phase I trials

Working with the University of Queensland (UQ), CSL and other partners, researchers at CSIRO’s advanced biologics production facility in Melbourne developed processes to scale-up, produce and purify the vaccine candidate in preparation for Phase I trials. Similar equipment and processes will be used for future large-scale production by commercial manufacturing partner, CSL.

Producing the vaccine candidate from lab to clinical scale meant moving from simple flasks to a state-of-the-art bioreactor, while ensuring the cells kept growing and producing the protein, all in line with best practice manufacturing standards. 

This project is an example of a true national collaboration involving academic and commercial partners, that has led to the production of a new candidate COVID-19 vaccine in an incredibly short period of time.

CSIRO’s expertise is in translating biomedical research through to commercial products using world-class science and technology.

- Dr Susie Nilsson, CSIRO Biology Group Leader

Time to develop a vaccine

The timeline of developing a vaccine in merely months is very fast. That’s because we started this race with most of the tools partly developed.

We are far ahead of where we were with SARS but the science complexity of what we are doing equates to the complexity of trying to put someone on Mars. It is very complex, and we really are pushing our science to the limits of global knowledge.

If all goes well, and everything goes right, CSIRO could be testing vaccines in months.

- Dr Rob Grenfell

Harmfulness

When a new infection first makes a transition to a new species, when it jumps from animals to humans, the virus goes through a phase of demonstrating what it is capable of doing. This one appeared as being very infectious. The concern is that we don’t know fully yet how this virus is going to behave because it is new, and we don’t know what animals may carry it.

- Dr Rob Grenfell

The evidence is showing it is mild however it has an apparent 1-2% mortality rate, that is, 1 in every 50-100 people in its current form. It is very new to its human host and we don’t know how it will behave. It could evolve and become more dangerous. We do need to be alert to the possibility it could get more virulent as it gets used to its new host.

- Dr Trevor Drew

Infection rates

The virus is very contagious meaning it is efficient in how it spreads. With the research we’re undertaking we’re aiming to get a better understanding of transmission of the virus. At this stage transmission rates are yet to be formally determined.

- Dr Trevor Drew

Origins of the virus

We don’t know where the virus originated from – this is yet to be determined. CSIRO is looking to identify the possible animal carrier/host of the novel coronavirus. CSIRO has a history of this type of research, as previously our scientists identified bats as the natural reservoir of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)-like coronaviruses.
We, and others, will be undertaking work to determine the host or hosts. Indications are, and we’re assuming, it has come from bats. We will work with cell cultures to help determine potential hosts.

- Dr Trevor Drew

Bats are known to be reservoir hosts for a variety of viruses, including SARS coronavirus that emerged in 2002. The virus responsible for COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, is very closely related to SARS and other known bat coronaviruses. Although the host for SARS-CoV-2 has yet to be identified, it is highly likely to have emerged from bats.

We have been working to try to understand how bats co-exist with viruses without disease and will be very interested to learn more about the role of bats in the emergence of this new virus. SARS-CoV-2.

- Dr Michelle Baker

What is coronavirus

Coronavirus is an umbrella terms for a group of viruses that can cause illnesses such as the common cold, gastrointestinal infections, and diseases including SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). They are found in a wide range of different animal hosts, including birds and reptiles and most are specific for a particular host. But, occasionally, these viruses can jump host, as in this case. Coronaviruses get their name from their appearance. The viruses look like they are covered with pointed structures that surround them like a corona, or crown, when viewed under a microscope.

- Dr Trevor Drew

Response efforts

There is still so much we don’t know about this new virus. It is very new to its human host – we don’t know yet how it will behave. A cautionary approach is prudent until we know more.

We’re in regular communication with the Australian National Operations Office to keep them informed on the status of our work and have made ourselves available to assist where needed.

- Dr Trevor Drew

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    An image of the corona virus responsible for causing the disease COVID-19.

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  • CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong

    CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) in Geelong (formerly the Australian Animal Health Laboratory).

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    Scientists working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).

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    Scientists working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL)

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  • Two scientists in hazmat suits working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).

    Scientists working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).

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  • Scientist in hazmat suit working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).

    Scientists working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).

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  • Scientist in hazmat suit working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).

    Scientists working in the secure area at CSIRO's Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).

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