Preparing for the next pandemic

September 13, 2021

Scientists in universities across Australia, energised by the pitched battle against COVID-19, are developing a suite of home-made solutions to future scourges.

Image: University of Queensland’s Dr Kirsty Short uses molecular biochemistry to investigate future potential animal-to-human virus transmission.

Basic science informs and drives advances in knowledge that address social needs. Nowhere was this more obvious than the extraordinary ability of scientific research in rapidly helping society respond to the pandemic. As new variants emerge and we face the need to develop new vaccines and policies that can let us learn to live with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we look at what’s next and the science these advances rely on. 

Building blocks for new vaccines

When the next pandemic virus strikes — as it most certainly will — Professor Bernd Rehm’s team in Brisbane will be ready to launch into action.

The Director of the Centre for Cell Factories and Biopolymers at Griffith University’s Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery (GRIDD) has, with colleagues, developed technology that allows researchers to quickly precision engineer vaccines in response to a novel virus. And it’s the result of years of painstaking science research and development.

“The approach is based on hijacking the assembly pathways of microbial cells to assemble vaccine particles that mimic the virus. We basically take genetic information from the virus and incorporate that into microbial production hosts,” he says. This allows them to create candidate vaccines in the lab that are then available to test in animal trials.

The platform relies on metabolic and protein engineering to create a range of tiny polymer nanostructures — such as micelles and polymersomes — to assemble stable vaccines, which safely deliver antigens of the new virus into the body, provoking the immune system to produce antibodies against it. 

They have already developed two new vaccine candidates to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. As we’ve seen, the battle against SARS-CoV-2 is far from over: while seven vaccines are currently being deployed worldwide, evolution drives the virus to become more infectious. The more people it infects, the more mutations arise, creating new variants — some of which may sidestep existing vaccines, or make them less effective.

Scientists around the world are racing to try and stay ahead of the mutating virus, developing an arsenal of new vaccine candidates against it. Importantly, the GRIDD technology platform was developed locally, allowing Australian researchers to not only respond to new variants of SARS-CoV-2, but entirely new pathogens. Along with a domestic ability to rapidly design new vaccines, their manufacturing process can be easily upscaled within months to produce millions of doses per week.

Unmasking weaknesses in the new viruses

Where will the next pandemic virus come from? Before SARS-CoV-2 came along, based on decades of research, scientists had expected influenza would be the most likely to cause a global pandemic, and that a new devastating strain would likely come from birds. That hasn’t changed.

In fact, the threat from a pandemic ‘bird flu’ virus has got worse: the most worrying variant of highly pathogenic avian influenza, HPAI Asian H5N1, is now endemic in poultry in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. It seems only a matter of time before the virus mutates an ability to jump to humans.

To prepare for this, scientists at the University of Queensland’s School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, led by Dr Kirsty Short, have mapped the genome of the black swan, the bird most susceptible to avian influenza, a disease that can cause severe symptoms and kill the birds within 24 hours. 

By understanding why black swans fall victim to the virus so easily and quickly, scientists hope to understand how the virus attacks, how the bird’s immune system responds, and glean insights into how the pathogen propagates.

“Since 2003, this virus has only infected approximately 800 people worldwide — however, more than 50 per cent of infected individuals have not survived the disease,” says Short. “If the current pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that it is important we know more about potential animal-to-human viruses early.”

Her team has already identified genes that are differently expressed in black swans. “We’re annotating immune genes in the black swan genome and comparing them to genes in the closely related mute swan genome, along with other avian species. We’re also employing computer-driven, large-scale comparisons of these genomes,” says Short. 

It’s the kind of research that may help find chinks in H5N1’s armour in preparation for doing battle in the years ahead.

Airborne transmission

One good thing to come out of COVID-19 has been the acceptance in medical circles of how easily viruses transmit through the air — partly thanks to Professor Lidia Morawska, Director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at the Queensland University of Technology. In May 2021, the aerosol physicist led a group of 239 scientists from around the world — including physicians, virologists and epidemiologists — to convince the World Health Organisation that airborne spread of SARS-CoV-2 was not only possible, but actually happening.

Mitigating this risk in buildings will require an overhaul of national building codes, adding ‘air quality’ as a top priority for indoor ventilation. But Morawska argues this is needed not just to fight pandemics; poor indoor air quality is increasingly recognised by scientists as a health issue. 

Australians spend 90% of their time indoors — in homes, schools, restaurants, offices, public buildings or inside cars. 

As buildings become better sealed from the outside, pollutants within are being found at high concentrations. The medical cost of indoor air pollutants alone runs at $140 million a year, while its wider burden to the economy may be as high as $12 billion a year. 

“We need building engineering controls that take into account the physics knowledge we already have about airborne infection and transmission,” she says. “But we also need a paradigm change in how buildings are designed, equipped and operated, to minimise all airborne risks — not just infection transmission, but airborne particulate matter emitted by industry, transport, bushfires and dust storms.”

While indoor air quality is a developing science, it’s an issue that is rising to prominence — partly thanks to COVID-19 and the repeated instances of airborne transmission, which have led to large-scale outbreaks and lockdowns with devastating economic impacts. 

While new codes would apply only to new buildings, older buildings should also have ventilation systems retrofitted, Morawska says. This would not only minimise infection transmission in future pandemics, but dramatically reduce the incidence of respiratory disease from indoor air pollutants. “When inhaled, fine particles can damage heart and brain function, circulation, breathing and the immune and endocrine systems,” she says. 

Her centre is developing scientific and engineering solutions to suppress airborne transmission of respiratory viruses, including intelligent building systems, new quantitative methods for assessing a plethora of indoor air risks and practical tools to improve indoor environments. 

COVID-19 has forced us to take the existing science more seriously, which will make our workplaces healthier. And that’s a good thing, she says. 

Written by Wilson da Silva

First published in Australian University Science, issue 6.

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