Lab-grown novel coronavirus to speed up detection and response

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Dr. Julian Druce, virus identification laboratory head at the Doherty Institute, and Dr. Mike Catton, deputy director at the Doherty Institute. Photo by: REUTERS / Andrew Kelly

CANBERRA — The growth of novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, in a Melbourne-based laboratory has been described by the scientists behind this development as “a piece in the puzzle” to developing tests and vaccines to combat its rapid spread.

After receiving a sample from Australia’s first confirmed case, reported on Jan. 25, scientists from The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity were successfully growing the virus in culture by the morning of Jan. 27.

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“We’ve moved immediately to share this with our international colleagues, to provide a toolkit that complements modern molecular techniques that are useful in diagnosis and development of vaccines and medicines,” Dr. Mike Catton, deputy director of the Doherty Institute, told the media on Jan. 29.

Globally there have been more than 6,000 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV across 19 countries and territories, with 132 deaths. The virus was first reported in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, in December 2019. Laboratory tests revealed it’s a new coronavirus. Now, scientists are racing to learn more about it as cases rise in and outside China.

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Dr. Julian Druce, virus identification laboratory head at the Doherty Institute, said that the genome sequence of novel coronavirus released by Chinese officials were helpful but having the “real virus” provided the ability to validate and verify all test methods and improve diagnosis.

The grown virus is expected to be used to create a first-generation antibody test, which allows detection of the virus in patients who haven’t displayed symptoms.

“An antibody test will enable us to retrospectively test suspected patients so we can gather a more accurate picture of how widespread the virus is, and consequently, among other things, the true mortality rate,” Catton said.

It will also assist in the assessment of effective trial vaccines, controlling the spread of the virus and speed up research that has been put on the backburner. To date, the virus has not been provided outside of China for testing in international laboratories, and elsewhere countries have struggled growing it, Druce said.

“The general tone of discussion internationally about the virus up to now was that it was hard to grow and slow to grow when it grew,” Catton added.

Druce said they were able to grow the virus within a short period of time because of their team’s access to modern diagnostics labs and usage of traditional methods of culture growth.

“We’ve planned for an incident like this for many, many years and that’s really why we were able to get an answer so quickly,” Catton said.

The Doherty Institute is working currently on extracting genetic material from the virus and getting this in the hands of Australian public health labs to have a positive control for their various laboratory tests. The virus will then be shared with expert laboratories globally.

“We will work closely with the WHO and take their advice on who should receive the virus first,” Catton said.

Growing 2019-nCoV had not shown anything different than other strains of coronavirus, Druce said, but creating the full genome sequence of the virus is the next task for the Doherty Institute in supporting the global effort to prevent the spread of 2019-nCoV.

The World Health Organization has said that measures such as these could provide a better understanding of a virus and its characteristics.

“Virus isolation and sharing enables researchers to design, validate, and standardize molecular and serological diagnostic assays (tests), and to develop external quality assessment programmes to monitor laboratory performance,” said Karen Nahapetyan, technical officer at WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme in the Western Pacific.

In the longer term, he said, these measures can also help design vaccines and anti-viral drugs, as well as develop animal models.

About the authors

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.
  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.