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12 February 2020
By SARAH SCULLY
The former Wimmera doctor overseeing the development of a novel coronavirus vaccine has described the task as ‘as complex as putting man on Mars’.
Dr Robert Grenfell, who grew up in Horsham and ran a general practice in Natimuk for 13 years, has been health and biosecurity director at CSIRO since mid 2016.
Dr Grenfell is overseeing a team at one of the country’s most secure scientific laboratories – the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Lab in Geelong – in a global fight to stop the spread of the deadly disease, which has killed more than 1000 people following an outbreak in China’s Wuhan province in December.
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Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, CEPI, a global group that aims to derail epidemics by speeding up vaccine development, has engaged CSIRO to help determine the current virus’s characteristics.
CSIRO scientists have access to the virus thanks to Melbourne’s Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, the first organisation outside China to grow the virus in a lab.
The CSIRO team has a 16-week deadline to develop a vaccine ready for human testing.
“That’s the gauntlet that’s been thrown down, but the path to success with a vaccine is technically very challenging,” Dr Grenfell said.
“There is a lot of science involved. We have the virus and the team is replicating it and analysing it. We are testing the virus behaviour in biological models, which are the same models they used when they were testing the SARS virus.”
Dr Grenfell said all going well, the team would have a vaccine ready to trial on animals by the start of next month.
After that, the CSIRO will have pre-clinical validation, and the vaccine will be ready for human trials.
“A couple of steps are based on good fortune as well as cutting-edge science,” Dr Grenfell said.
“I like to equate this as a task as complex as putting a man on Mars. What we are being asked to do is right on the edge of science.”
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall said the organisation had been on the front line of biosecurity for 100 years.
“From hosting Australia’s most secure biosecurity lab, to developing the world’s first effective flu treatment and a vaccine for the Hendra virus, to more recent research on pathogens like SARS, CSIRO has a long history in keeping Australians safe from the threat of disease,” he said.
“CSIRO is uniquely placed to combine our deep expertise in animal and human health, with capability in genetics, data and machine learning, to help fight this virus – but collaboration is key.”
Dr Grenfell said he could not speak highly enough of Chinese health leaders’ efforts to share information.
He said while potential treatments for the new coronavirus were being trialled across the world, there was no competition between countries or agencies.
“The race is against the virus,” he said.
“The area of expertise in this field is pretty limited. We are part of a global push for a solution. This is a problem that needs to be solved.
“We wait and hold our breath to see how this thing plays out.”
Coronavirus is a term for a family of viruses, which also includes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, MERS, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS.
Symptoms of the novel – or new – coronavirus range from a mild cough to pneumonia.
Some people recover easily, while others get sick quickly.
Dr Grenfell said the new coronavirus was highly infectious.
He encouraged people to visit the Department of Health website, health.gov.au, for up-to-date information and advice.
Dr Grenfell said while the race to find a vaccine was a ‘very big and important project’, he oversaw an enormous amount of challenges in his role.
He oversees 300 scientists across Australia and the globe.
“I have a very broad team,” he said.
“Some of the work we do is particularly relevant to the Wimmera, such as managing teams looking into pests affecting crops, including the conical snail and dung beetle.”
Dr Grenfell attended primary school at Longerenong and graduated from Horsham High School.
He still maintains ties to the Wimmera, particularly Natimuk, where he owns the town’s art gallery.
“I ran into my high school science teacher a year ago and I said to him, there can’t be too many science teachers who have a former student who is a director at the CSIRO,” Dr Grenfell said.
“He was pretty proud. When I look back at the fundamental teaching and assistance I’ve had along the way, I certainly wouldn’t discount the great education I received in Horsham.”
The entire February 12, 2020 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!