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Deep inside a layer of concrete and a few centimetres of steel sits a lab it is hoped will be key to keeping Australia safe from vaccine-busting coronavirus variants.
Under these ultra-secure conditions at the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, just south of Sydney’s CBD, a team of scientists is quickly screening the growing tide of mutant viruses that reach Australia’s borders.
The variant lab – seen here through thick protective glass.Credit:James Brickwood
Are they more infectious? Worse, do they evade our vaccine defences?
The lab’s head, Associate Professor Stuart Turville, just finished work on B.1.617.1, the first Indian variant to raise concern.
“It’s evasive. But not as evasive as the South African variant,” he said. The second Indian variant, B.1.617.2, is growing in cells right now. “On Monday, we’ll know.”
Thanks to a little bit of luck and a lot of excellent science, it is hoped that this lab – originally built to study HIV but rapidly upgraded to deal with COVID-19 – will become Australia’s variant sentinel.
Full protective suits and positive-pressure respirators must be worn to work with the virus. Credit:James Brickwood
“We should be able to predict whether vaccines will still be effective and the margin of that protectiveness,” Kirby Institute director Professor Anthony Kelleher said. The lab is not directly affiliated with NSW Health, but has a close working relationship with them.
To study SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, researchers first need to grow it in a lab dish. This is harder than it sounds.
CoV-2 is reasonably fussy about what cells it grows in. Melbourne’s Doherty Institute made a global breakthrough in January when it managed to grow the virus in monkey kidney cells.
But only about one in every five COVID swabs will grow in the monkey cells. If a rare variant turns up, there is every chance the cells won’t be able to culture it – potentially leaving scientists blind.
Separately, the Kirby’s Institute’s Dr Anupriya Aggarwal had been working on a project to build a cell COVID-19 would greedily infect. She took human kidney cells and genetically modified them so they were studded with ACE2 and TMPRSS2, the keyholes the virus uses to enter a cell.
It worked. CoV-2 loved Dr Aggarwal’s new cells – almost too much.
“We did not really know what to do with it,” Professor Turville said. “The virus rips through it. It was almost too sensitive and so we put it on the backburner.”
Then, the variants turned up – and they loved Dr Aggarwal’s new human cells.
Associate Professor Stuart Turville.Credit:James Brickwood
Suddenly, the ultra-secure lab’s freezers were full of variants.
“In a period of about three weeks, we were the only lab that had all the variants of concern,” Professor Turville said.
“We had South Africa, we had Brazil, we had the Britain, we had Kenya, we had ones from the USA. It was surreal, to be honest with you. And then we started to test them.”
“These are our little canaries in the coal mine,” says Professor Turville.Credit:James Brickwood
The first variant studied was the one that The Age revealed in January drove Melbourne’s second wave.
In a paper Professor Turville co-wrote with his wife, Associate Professor Fabienne Brilot-Turville, they showed the Melbourne virus “was fitter, but it also took a little bit of the edge off antibody response”.
Now, the lab is focussing on new variants. Using the special cells, the team can tell in a week if a variant is likely to be more contagious or evade antibodies.
That will still need to be proven in humans – cells in a dish are not the same as people – but it could give Australia a crucial early-warning system.
“These are our little canaries in the coal mine,” Professor Turville said.
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