Sunday, August 22, 2021

Powerful new Australian vacine may beat Delta

Australia was left devastated when the University of Queensland was forced to scrap its Covid-19 vaccine. But now it’s poised to push ahead with an exciting new ‘Wave 2’ version.

The pandemic supercharged the vaccine development efforts of Big Pharma, governments and academia in a way never experienced before.

Scientists weren’t starting from scratch; coronaviruses have been studied for decades, with much understanding about spike proteins already garnered.

But as Covid-19 menaced the globe, scientists began sharing often jealously guarded data, myriad projects were shelved to focus on the virus and hard-to-get funding for development and trials was splashed about to find an answer.

In Brisbane, the UQ team had been plugging away on its vaccine technology for almost a decade when Covid-19 hit. For a number of years, the work was unfunded.

And if the virus had held off for just one more year, the issue that killed off the first clamp vaccine would have been discovered.

To be clear, the revised Clamp 2.0 does not use fragments of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Not a skerrick of it.

It was these pesky hints of HIV showing up as false positives in some HIV diagnostic tests that ended UQ’s first vaccine.

Not poor results from the first phase of clinical testing, not bad reactions, not anything that suggested the vaccine was unsafe. In fact, the clinical data the team got in from its initial human testing was “awesome”.

Patients were not at risk of contracting HIV and developing AIDS because only two peptides of HIV, not the entire virus, were used.

But explaining that to an already nervous populace was a communications challenge that, in the end, no-one involved was prepared to take on. At least, not when Pfizer and AstraZeneca had vaccines that were looking promising.

From the moment Covid-19’s genetic sequence was released on January 11 last year, Associate Professor Dan Watterson was designing the first vaccine construct.

On January 21, CEPI asked UQ to prepare a trial and commit to taking a vaccine to manufacture. So began 10 months of intense work to produce a Covid-19 vaccine.

Clamp 1 vaccine is gone, never to be rolled out. CSL had to dispose of tens of thousands of doses of already made vaccine. But in our community are people who put out their arm for a jab of the homegrown vaccine in the Phase 1 trials. They are still being monitored. Their bloods are tested, their results checked. There’s no hint of HIV anymore. But the vaccine-generated antibodies for Covid-19, those disease fighters of the immune system, remain at a protective level.

“It still looks,” Young says with a hint of melancholy, “like a really solid vaccine.”

The fact that UQ is developing a Covid-19 vaccine is thanks in large part to CEPI’s continued backing. It had pulled its funding on the first vaccine just prior to the Federal Government’s decision to terminate its deal with CSL for the manufacture of the vaccine.

But after a review of the data from Clamp 1, “the panel was really impressed and asked us to continue with Covid-19”, Young says.

No one in the team is setting a date for when the vaccine could be ready. The full range of clinical trials will be run, with the added complexity of dealing with a population that will have been vaccinated or exposed to the virus.

But variants are at the forefront of the team’s mind. Munro says screening of potential variants is being done now and a choice of which, if any, to target in the UQ vaccine will be made as close as possible to the time where decisions must be made on development and manufacture.

“We could make it Delta, we could make it Delta Plus,” Munro says. The consensus among the scientific community is that a diversity of vaccines will be needed.

“These protein vaccines in the future may have an important role to play,” he says. Munro says protein vaccines are tricky to develop and none of the candidates being devised globally have received approval yet. The most likely to get there first is Novavax, which released good data from large scale clinical trials in June.

“We’ll see over time, if people who may have a poor immune response to AstraZeneca or Pfizer may respond better to an adjuvanted protein vaccine,” Munro says. “That might be especially important in older individuals. We don’t know that but that’s one theory and you can imagine that being true.”


TGA approves new antibody drug sotrovimab to treat Covid-19 in Australia

Australians who test positive to Covid-19 and are at risk of being admitted to hospital will soon have access to a new drug to prevent virus symptoms from worsening.

Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, on Friday granted provisional approval for the use of antibody treatment drug sotrovimab.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the government had secured an initial allocation of more than 7700 doses of the drug for the National Medical Stockpile.

The new treatment can reduce hospitalisation or death by up to 79 per cent in adults with mild to moderate Covid-19.

It is administered through an IV infusion in a healthcare facility.

Associate Professor Paul Griffin, practicing infectious diseases physician and clinical microbiologist, said the drug’s approval would have a “tremendous” impact in hard hit regions such Sydney.

“We are seeing the situation which we really wanted to avoid, our health care systems get to capacity and beyond that, get overwhelmed,” he told NCA Newswire.

“I’m getting some suggestions that NSW is getting to some of those thresholds.

“The potential for this therapy is to stop people progressing to severe disease, potentially keeping them out of hospital, potentially keeping them out of intensive care.

“Potentially it could free up the resources that would have otherwise been utilised and I guess get some capacity back to the health system.”

It is expected that sotrovimab will be targeted for the treatment of Australians over 55 years old who have Covid-19 and also have one or more of the following risk factors for disease progression – diabetes, obesity, chronic kidney disease, heart failure, lung disease and moderate to severe asthma.

The drug has also been approved for use in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Hunt said the drug was an important new tool doctors could use to treat Covid-19 and to reduce hospitalisations.

“This treatment will provide another tool in the ongoing challenge against COVID-19, in addition to the Covid-19 vaccines, which are being rolled out in record numbers across the country,” he said.

The TGA has given approval to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Australia Pty Ltd to make sotrovimab available for use in Australia.

It is the second Covid-19 treatment to receive regulatory approval in Australia, following the TGA’s approval of Remdesivir.


Mental health services report steep increase in calls since pandemic began

The true impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns is beginning to show, with a concerning increase in the number of Australians seeking help via emergency psychological helplines.

According to deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd, Lifeline and Beyond Blue have both reported a 30 per cent increase in calls compared to the time before the pandemic began.

“For those experiencing lockdowns, this is a time of disruption and frustration for many, and a time of isolation and fear for others,” Professor Kidd said.

“We need to be supporting each other and showing our love and our care to our family members and to our neighbours and our friends.”

In May 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged nations to “urgently increase investment” in services for mental health.

“The impact of the pandemic on people's mental health is already extremely concerning,” said Director-General of the World Health Organisation Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Social isolation, fear of contagion, and loss of family members is compounded by the distress caused by loss of income and often employment.”

Through the Covid-19 national health plan, an extra $74 million has been invested into Australia‘s mental health services over 2020-21.

But mental health struggles are still at an elevated level among Australians, with mental health-related prescriptions and calls to mental health support lines maintaining significantly higher numbers than pre-pandemic times according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Professor Kidd urged anyone struggling with their mental health to contact Lifeline, the Kids Helpline, or Beyond Blue.

“More Australians than ever before are reaching out for help and support,” he said.

“If you feel you may need help or assistance or you need someone to talk to, please do not hesitate to reach out.”


The chimera of carbon capture & storage

As the world digests the latest grim warning from the IPCC, attention is turning to Australia's "technology not taxes" approach. And central to that is carbon capture and storage (CCS).

New data shows that almost $4 billion of taxpayer money has been spent on the technology and after decades it is still not operating at industry scale.

But Mark McCallum, CEO of Low Emission Technology Australia (LETA, formerly Coal21), which is funded by the black coal industry, said the challenges for CCS had been overcome.

"In Australia we're actually in a really good position now that we've established these large-scale storage sites," he said, referencing progress at trial sites in Queensland and South Australia.

The insinuation is that deployment of the widespread industrial-scale CCS is not far away, and despite a huge surge in investment in renewables, Mr McCallum said carbon capture technology had to play a role in emissions reduction.

"We'll still need steel for the wind turbines, we'll still need cement for the homes and buildings we all live in, and we'll still need power when the wind's not blowing and the sun's not shining," he said.

"CCS gives us an option to generate that power, but cleanly."

The Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction has been speaking about carbon capture and storage technology as part of the federal government's push to overhaul clean energy investment.

But Richi Merzian, director of climate and energy at think tank The Australia Institute, said proponents had long claimed large-scale CCS was just around the corner.

"It's great that LETA, or Coal21 as they used to be called, say that they're close, but they've been saying that for the last 15 years," he said.

His team has crunched the numbers on how much taxpayer money has been spent so far on CCS research and development.

"Since 2003, Australian governments have committed over $4 billion of public money to carbon capture and storage, with hardly anything to show for it," Mr Merzian said.

"When it comes to the targets being set for carbon capture and storage, all the examples that we looked at — from the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel, or local targets set by the Australian government, or the Australian Coal Association, or even industry groups — we've found that every single one of those targets has been missed."

Will CCS ever work at scale?

Carbon capture and storage technology is not new, it's been used commercially since the 1970s, and there are dozens of commercial-scale projects around the world.

Australia has the largest facility in the world at Chevron's Gorgon LNG project off the West Australian coast.

But while CCS technology is well understood, its implementation is proving problematic and very expensive.

Chevron has "deliberately mismanaged" its carbon sequestration project at the Gorgon gas facility in Western Australia in order to avoid its environmental commitments, a WA conservation group has alleged.

At the Gorgon project, for example, while the project started in 2016, CCS still was not operating until years later, and today the project has not met its target to capture 80 per cent of emissions in its first five years.

"Every single carbon and capture storage project is bespoke," said Greg Bourne, a climate and energy expert at the Climate Council, who also had an extensive career in the oil and gas industry.

Mr Bourne said unlike wind or solar technology, CCS plants had to be tailor-made for the project, be it a coal power station, LNG plant, or steel or cement making.

"It is highly expensive and really doesn't lend itself for economies of scale," he said.

The Global CCS Institute says currently "some 40 megatonnes of CO2 are captured and stored annually".

"What they don't talk about is it produces extra oil, which when burnt puts 74 million tonnes a year back into the atmosphere. So it's a net positive technology at the moment," Mr Bourne said.




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