Getting ahead of COVID-19

“We need to develop a vaccine pro-actively rather than reactively" – Dr Deborah Burnett

COVID-19 has caused one of the worst global health emergencies in living memory. And it’s not going away. New variants of COVID-19 will continue to emerge, affecting our health and economies.

Our goal is to develop a universal vaccine that future-proofs our response to new strains.

This novel research is a vital evolution in our fight against COVID-19. Dr Deborah Burnett and her team are seeking to can develop and manufacture a universal vaccine that will help disrupt the current COVID-19 cycle in Australia and around the world.

Read more about this research 

Dr Deborah Burnett
Dr Deborah Burnett

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Current vaccines

When the pandemic started, scientists at Garvan immediately began performing vital research, allowing the global scientific community to better understand the virus and develop new ways to treat and prevent infection. The current vaccines are our best line of defence against COVID-19 and we are grateful to all of the scientists and frontline workers who worked tirelessly to develop and deploy the vaccines. They have saved millions of lives and have been highly effective in reducing hospitalisations and saving lives. However, most current vaccine development is aimed at developing variant-specific vaccines following a new variant emerging. This reactive strategy, by definition, results in a significant lag between the emergence of a new variant and the development of an appropriate vaccine.

This means that future variants will also likely escape current vaccine defences.

Our research has revealed that the majority of antibodies produced by both current COVID-19 vaccines and following natural infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus target highly “variable” sites that the virus can easily mutate. As a result, these antibodies are significantly less effective against emerging variants of the virus and there remains an ongoing need to continually update vaccines to protect against new strains. This strategy of constantly playing “catch up” and formulating vaccines reactively poses the risk that the virus will mutate faster than health strategies can react to. 

Towards a universal vaccine 

Without a new vaccine approach, we will continue to feel the devastating impact of COVID-19 in our hospitals, on our economy and in our daily lives.

That’s why our team here at Garvan, co-led by Dr Deborah Burnett, Professor Daniel Christ and Professor Chris Goodnow, is focusing our expertise, leading-edge technology and unique research capabilities on developing a next-generation, universal vaccine that can get ahead of these new variants.

A novel solution to the problem of immune escape

In a breakthrough discovery, Dr Burnett and our team have already identified immunisation strategies, using elements of related coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV-1 - the virus that caused the 2003 epidemic - that focus antibodies on key sites of vulnerability that the virus cannot easily mutate. This discovery is key to creating a future-proofed COVID-19 vaccine.

Our goal is to develop these promising target designs into real world mRNA vaccines. This strategy could help us create a vaccine that doesn’t need updating and may even prevent future outbreaks from occurring.