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Hope on the horizon: Developing a COVID vaccine

Alum Vas Vasan leads the pre-clinical response at Australia's scientific research agency.
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Professor S.S. Vasan at the WHO coronavirus expert meeting at Geneva in February

As head of the Dangerous Pathogens Team at CSIRO, Australia's government agency for scientific research, "Vas" Vasan (NJE 03-04) is on the front lines of developing a vaccine for COVID-19. "The team I lead was the first to show that ferrets are susceptible [to the virus]," he says. "We are developing this animal model for vaccine efficacy studies funded by CEPI [Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness]." Ferrets' lung physiology is similar to that of humans', so the discovery was an important one.

Vas took a few minutes away from his vitally important work to talk to us about his background, how he started working on the virus response, and the challenges he faces.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I left the Firm to return to Oxford to submit my doctoral thesis, and spent the next six years at Oxford and its spinout Oxitec as Head of Public Health, looking at new ways to control dengue, Chikungunya and Zika viruses. I now lead the Dangerous Pathogens Team at the CSIRO, Australia’s science agency, and was previously with the British equivalent high-containment facility in Porton Down for seven years where I led the agency’s business response to Ebola and Zika.

How did you end up working on COVID-19?

My research on ‘Disease X’ preparedness is funded by the CSIRO and the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The emergence of COVID-19 just changed our focus from an unknown pathogen to a specific virus (SARS-CoV-2).

The latest issue of the journal ‘Nature’ says your team was the first to show that ferrets are susceptible to the virus. Your team also grew the first batch of the virus outside China in sufficient stocks. Why are these important, and what will you and your team be doing over the next few months?

Before you go into humans with any kind of vaccine or treatments, you need to make sure it’s safe and efficacious. Pre-clinical research with animal models are essential to demonstrate efficacy before vaccines progress to Phase 2, Phase 3 human clinical trials. Having demonstrated that ferrets are susceptible, we are developing this model to evaluate leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates. This will contribute to downselection, which is a global priority.

What is the biggest challenge that you face with this kind of work?

The disconnect between academia, research organizations and industry is a big barrier to transitional research. All of them need to come together to combat diseases like COVID-19 – moving beyond reactive and ad hoc conversations between enthusiasts – to strategic and sustained engagement between organizations. The latter needs to happen in ‘peace time’ to help us move fast to address new diseases proactively when they emerge. The Firm, CEPI and other funding bodies could bridge this gap with thought leadership and workshops.

How did the Firm prepare you for what you're doing now?

First, getting to speed very quickly, being able to look at details without losing the big picture, creative thinking and not being afraid to ask uncomfortable questions.

Second, working double time, within and across teams to solve wicked problems. The Firm experience really makes sure that we are committed to delivery and exceeding expectations, even when we’re under pressure.

Finally, understanding the regulatory pathways and challenges faced by the private sector. And that how you’d engage with big pharma about these isn’t the same as how you’d talk to a mid-cap or startup.

You said previously in a media statement that “we're in a marathon and we have just started." Where are we now in terms of having an effective vaccine?

5km, probably. [For those not on the metric system, a marathon is 42km]

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You can read more about Vas's work here

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