Biomedical scientists join forces to fight COVID-19

Associate Professor Michael Beard

Associate Professor Michael Beard

Scientists from the Research Centre for Infectious Diseases will lead virological aspects of a COVID-19 project that aims to greater inform the local, national and global response efforts to the virus, including the creation of a vaccine.

Associate Professor Michael Beard from the Viral Pathogenesis Research Laboratory is part of a team of South Australian scientists joining forces in the fight against COVID-19.

The group of SA virologists, immunologists and clinicians has been equipped with $150,000 in funding from The Hospital Research Foundation and initial $75,000 from the Women’s and Children’s Hospital Foundation to commence their world-first research. 

The findings will help determine if in fact a “super race” does exist – recovered patients who can go back into the community with immunity – and how long the immunity may last.

Senior Virologist Dr Branka Grubor-Bauk from The University of Adelaide and Basil Hetzel Institute* said the team would study the response and recovery of COVID-19 patients who were hospitalised at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) and Women’s and Children’s Hospital (WCH).

“South Australia is in a unique position to do this with a first-world health system, excellent research capabilities and, if we can act quickly, the possibility to track the virus and the population from an early point in the infection cycle,” Dr Grubor-Bauk said.

“We will be evaluating the virology and immune responses of hospitalised adult and child patients from symptomology through to recovery and ultimately for a further 12 months.

“This knowledge will inform what part of the virus a vaccine should target and what kind of response is required to be protected. It will be a high impact study of global reach to drive treatment and vaccine design.”  

To do this, the team will assess the COVID-19 disease profile in:

  • critically ill patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the RAH 
  • moderately ill patients in the RAH Infectious Diseases Ward 
  • recovered patients that have been released as “COVID-19 free”
  • all children and pregnant women presenting at the WCH.

Immunologist Professor Simon Barry from The University of Adelaide and WCH said the study would help determine why there was such a broad range of symptoms experienced from the same virus. 

“There’s an awful lot we don’t know about why some people are asymptomatic, why some people get very sick and why some people get moderately sick. We are looking to build up a very high-resolution picture of how people’s immune systems respond to the virus and why,” Prof Barry said. 

“For example, what’s different in children? Some reports have suggested that children don’t get as sick. While that’s not always true, if it is occurring in some cases, what is it about a young person’s immune system that’s working differently to an adult’s? 

“These sorts of studies are great for understanding the disease response, but we also want it to have an impact, for example can we use this immunology to help test  if a vaccine works better and lasts longer for all the children, mums and adults of South Australia.”

Dr Benjamin Reddi, Clinical Lead at the RAH ICU, said the team’s findings would be critical to current patient treatments as well as local, national and global efforts to develop a vaccine. 

“COVID-19 is thought to be up to 30 times more deadly than influenza with no effective cure available. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that most people recover after developing only mild symptoms,” Dr Reddi said.

“We can learn from those who recover what their new immunity looks like, so in the future we can work out how to promote widespread protective immunity against COVID-19.”

We are stronger together

This project has only been made possible thanks to a unique state-wide collaboration between virologists, immunologists, clinicians, health networks and South Australian charities which have come together in just a matter of weeks to provide their support to the lifesaving work.

The collaborations include: 

  • Dr Branka Grubor-Bauk who is leading the adult COVID-19 project, working with Dr Benjamin Reddi at the RAH ICU and Dr David Shaw and Dr Chuan Kok Lim at the RAH Infectious Diseases Ward 
  • Professor Simon Barry who is leading the paediatric and pregnancy arm of the study at WCH 
  • Associate Professor Michael Beard from the University of Adelaide who is leading the virological aspects of the project
  • Professor Guy Maddern and Jessica Reid who are leading the clinical trial coordination at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital
  • The Research Office of the Central Adelaide Local Health Network and Human Research Ethics Committee of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital Network which are overseeing governance 
  • The Hospital Research Foundation and Women’s & Children’s Hospital Foundation which are providing financial backing for the work. 

Paul Flynn, CEO of The Hospital Research Foundation said the charity was pleased to offer support during this time of crisis.

“As South Australia’s largest health charity, it is incumbent on us to do all we can to protect the health and wellbeing of our community,” Paul said. 

“Our Together Fight campaign is about joining forces to fight the enemy. This team of scientists are doing just that and should be commended for coming together so quickly with one common goal.

Jane Scotcher, CEO of the WCH Foundation, is proud to be part of this collaborative research project.

“As the leading charity for maternal and paediatric health in the state, thanks to our donors we ensure that women and children have access to the very best medical care,” Jane said.

“This research project will play a vital part in enabling positive health outcomes for women and children during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as their families and loved ones.

“Everyone is impacted by COVID-19 and we all have an important part to play in the response to the pandemic. Our partnership with The Hospital Research Foundation and the researchers demonstrates this.”

*The Basil Hetzel Institute for Translational Health Research is the research arm of The Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Tagged in Research, School of Biological Sciences, Research Centre for Infectious Diseases, Biomedical Science