People and Places
25/06/2020
Uni uses cutting-edge technology in search for COVID-19 vaccine

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Has COVID-19 got you confused about how some people get really sick and others don’t? And how come it’s OK for our kids to go to school and sit on top of each other and yet they have to adhere to social distancing rules on the outside? And should we be concerned about fast-tracking a vaccine that hasn’t been tested repeatedly? 

The above are just a few reasons why we spoke with Professor Colin Pouton, pictured, from Monash University’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences about his role in developing a vaccine to knock the highly contagious virus that causes COVID-19 on the head.  With years of experience in pharmacology, this English-born Mornington Peninsula day-tripper enthusiast who entered his career as a pharmacist before becoming an academic has a particular interest in drug discovery and delivery. His faculty, which operates out of Monash in Parkville, is developing a COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) vaccine using something called messenger RNA – or mRNA – technology and he’s excited. 

Prof Pouton explains: “COVID-19 illustrates how viral infections caused by closely related viruses can have very different characteristics. SARS-CoV-2 is much more contagious than the SARS coronavirus but is less life-threatening. It is interesting that children are at such a low risk of developing COVID-19. There is a thought that because they have had less exposure to coronaviruses throughout their lifetime, they can neutralise it more readily and expel it quickly so they aren’t a risk to each other. They could also be the silent carriers, having little to no symptoms. Adults who have had more exposure to coronaviruses are perhaps more likely to develop non-neutralising responses and can’t get rid of it while those with pre-existing health conditions are particularly at risk.”

Prof Pouton says there’s been an urgent need to find new ways of developing vaccines because COVID-19 has progressed so quickly. That’s where mRNA technology comes in. He continues: “We’ve been working on mRNA technology for both therapeutic and vaccination purposes for a few years and think it’s likely that a COVID-19 vaccine will be the first mRNA product. President Trump has put a lot of money into five programs committed to finding a vaccine and three of those programs are mRNA-based. I don’t think there’ll be just one vaccine for COVID-19 as it’s such a huge problem. We are at least 12 months away and the virus can change quickly, plus there’s a huge variety and strength of symptoms. It doesn’t appear to remain in the system though.”

Does Prof Pouton become frustrated working in an industry where as soon as one vaccine is found another virus comes along? “Not at all. That’s the challenge. One thing is certain: we can’t assume we are going to get vaccines from somewhere else. We need to take control and dedicate ourselves to finding our own vaccines. We already have mRNA technology in development and we can take it into the clinic. We just need the money to do it.”

LIZ ROGERS

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