The University of Queensland (UQ) is among the many academic facilities that joined the global effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines. Here, Trent Munro, PhD, program director of the UQ’s rapid response vaccine pipeline, explains to GEN contributing writer Vivienne Raper, PhD, how they manufactured millions of potential doses within a few months.
GEN: How did your program start?
Munro: Pre-COVID-19, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) wanted to test how rapidly a few different platform techs could respond to a new virus. They invested in us because we had a plug-and-play platform. When COVID-19 hit, we weren’t ready, but we had everything in place from a knowledge point-of-view.
GEN: How did you rapidly large-scale manufacturing?
Munro: We developed commercial partnerships with Lonza, Cytiva, Patheon-Thermo Fisher Scientific, and CSL Behring. Those four groups were able to take our vaccine out of the lab to be used—potentially—for hundreds of millions of doses.
Most people in a lab environment would have struggled to put those pieces together, but I’d just come from a long stint in industry where I’d worked in process development, so I had a clear sense of what needed to be done to make it industry friendly.
I knew we had to solve the upstream issues to be industry-relevant, and on the downstream side we needed a partner to create a chromatography resin for large-scale GMP. We already had a stable cell line, which used Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells, and it fit in with a lot of installed infrastructure for bioproduction.
There was a lot of willingness from companies to work with us. For example, we spoke to Lonza about their GS Xceed platform and, after emailing overnight, we were working with it within a week.
Looking back, we were lucky that everything worked beyond our expectations. The Cytiva resin just plugged-and-played, and the Lonza system created high-quality material from the get-go.
GEN: So, what happens next?
Munro: The punchline is that our program was halted in December because the portion of the vaccine which stabilized it, was creating antibodies against GP41. The response was so good that the antibodies against the stabilized domain interfered with HIV screening. That was enough to create concern around vaccine hesitancy and led to us not pushing into Phase III.
Before that happened, our partner CSL had completed multiple large-scale cGMP runs and millions of potential doses, which—for a mammalian CHO cell line—is difficult to do.