The Australian government has bailed on orders for 51 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine candidate in early testing after participants received false-positive results for HIV.
The vaccine was developed by the University of Queensland and the biopharmaceutical company CSL. Results from an ongoing Phase 1 trial showed the vaccine induced a “robust response” toward coronavirus, and also suggested the jab had a “strong” safety profile, tested among 216 trial participants, per a university announcement issued Friday.
“University of Queensland vaccine will not be able to proceed based on the scientific advice, and that will no longer feature as part of Australia’s vaccine plan,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday. “I think today, and the decisions we’ve taken should give Australians great assurance, that we are proceeding carefully, we are moving swiftly, but not with any undue haste here.”
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Some called the outcome an embarrassment, and others said it was a disappointment, including the university’s vice chancellor, Prof. Deborah Terry.
Morrison also said that his government won’t rush approval of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine because he wants people to have confidence in the product.
“We want to ensure that Australians — and I think all of us feel very strongly this way — have … absolute full confidence that when it gets the tick, they can get the jab,” Morrison said, per the Associated Press.
The blunder boiled down to a part of an HIV protein involved in the vaccine, to help with stabilizing the virus. Researchers said there was no chance that vaccine recipients could become infected with HIV, and though trial participants were informed of some immune response (according to the university), high levels of induced HIV antibodies turned up “very” unexpectedly on some HIV tests.
“It is generally agreed that significant changes would need to be made to well-established HIV testing procedures in the healthcare setting to accommodate rollout of this vaccine,” per the university statement.
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Professor Paul Young, vaccine co-lead at the university, said it would’ve taken too long to re-engineer the vaccine.
“Doing so would set back development by another 12 or so months, and while this is a tough decision to take, the urgent need for a vaccine has to be everyone’s priority,” Young said.
Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy told reporters that though evidence suggested the vaccine would be effective, the country cannot risk public confidence.
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Finally, Dr. Andrew Nash, chief scientific officer for CSL, said the result exemplified the potential for failure in early development stages. To compensate for the fallout of 51 million doses, Australia decided to ramp up CSL’s production of the potential Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine by another 20 million doses, to 53 million doses and upped its order for Maryland-based Novavax’s vaccine from 40 million to 51 million doses. This would be enough to cover the entire population.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.