Canceled University of Queensland COVID-19 vaccine to be tested on humans next year

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A second generation of the University of Queensland’s vaccine technology, abandoned during the rush to develop an effective COVID-19 shot, will enter human trials early next year.

UQ researchers were devastated in late 2020 when they had to drop out of the initial race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine after recipients in an early human trial of their molecular clamp technology falsely tested positive for HIV.

But they hope a new generation of the molecular clamp – called Clamp2 – will be used to produce future vaccines and save lives without worries about false positive HIV tests.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) has committed up to $8.5 million to support further development of Clamp2 for use in the global response to future disease outbreaks.

UQ molecular virologist Keith Chappell said a “proof of concept” human trial of a Clamp2 vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was due to begin in Brisbane next March.

“We never lost our belief that this was a technology that was needed to create vaccines and save lives,” Associate Professor Chappell said.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride. We’re riding high again and really excited about what’s to come.”

Professor Chappell said 35 volunteers would receive a Clamp2 COVID vaccine and 35 would receive Novavax to compare the UQ technology with an already approved COVID-19 shot.

“We believe, and we have shown in animal studies, that Clamp2 is as safe and effective as the first vaccine we tested in clinical trials,” he said.

“All we’ve done is compare the original to the new platform. It’s performed similarly or better across all viruses we’ve tested, and there’s no evidence of any diagnostic interference with HIV testing.”

Associate Professor Keith Chappell in a laboratory.
Associate Professor Keith Chappell is part of the team that developed the vaccine. (Provided by: University of Queensland)

Other viruses in their sights

The original clamp technology used in UQ’s first experimental COVID vaccine contained two fragments of a protein found in HIV, which acted as a chemical bulldog clip, holding together an engineered version of the spike protein found on the surface of SARS- The CoV-2 virus.

This enabled the immune system to recognize – and attack – the spike protein and produce protective antibodies.

By itself, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is unstable. It must be locked into shape to ensure that the vaccine produces a robust immune response.

Professor Chappell said he was unable to reveal details of Clamp2 due to intellectual property concerns.

But he said: “We can guarantee that there is no induction of cross-reactivity for HIV diagnostics”.

Although Clamp2 will first be tested in human trials of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, Professor Chappell said the researchers had no plans to add to the COVID-19 vaccines already on the market at this stage.

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