Recent newspaper headlines have suggested that if only scientists could work together, rather than competing, we would have a COVID-19 vaccine sooner.

Most researchers will be scratching their heads about this, as they are already collaborating enthusiastically. But beyond that the dichotomy is deeply misleading. It is not a choice between competition and cooperation, it is more about working alone or together. People do both but with different emphases at different stages. The way I say it is – exploration is best done alone, implementation together.

Imagine your tribe washed up on a barren shore and is lost. The first thing you do is send out scouts to explore. Small teams spread out, but keep sharing knowledge about dead-ends and hopeful leads, as they search for the right place to camp, an oasis or a river. Only after you have found it does everyone come together to build a town. You don’t all explore in the same direction, and you don’t get together to build a railway until you’re sure of the destination.

Implementing or translating too early sounds attractive but it can be both fruitless and wasteful.

Those with long memories will know that the earliest gene therapy, stem cell, and RNAi trials, cost millions and amounted to very little. At present a large number of repurposed drugs (probably too many) are being trialled against SARS-CoV2. Some will help a bit, but we will almost certainly need to do the hard yards to develop targeted therapeutic agents, or better still, a vaccine to beat this virus.

Since no one knows what will work, we need many labs to try different things. And we need labs with highly developed expertise to try the things they are good at. There are many different ways of making a vaccine. You can inject dead or crippled virus, you can inject a harmless piece of the virus, or DNA or RNA that encodes a harmless piece of the virus. We don’t know which strategy will work best.

This is why everyone is so vague about how long it will take to produce a vaccine. If we were building a railway, we could plan it, cost it, and project manage it, but we are still exploring. We do not know whether the first thing we try will work, or the tenth thing. The fastest approach will be to have many different teams working independently on different things, not all cooperating on one thing.

And this problem is much harder than finding a good place to camp. This is more like heading out to sea in search of Easter Island, without knowing for sure if it exists. There are good vaccines for some diseases but not for others. You will know that there is a vaccine that gives reasonable protection against flu, but you have to get a flu shot every year. One reason is that the flu virus tends to change quickly, so you need a different vaccine each year. HIV changes very rapidly and there is no vaccine.

Researchers have been tracking the corona virus and, though small changes in its genome have been observed, it doesn’t seem to be changing too rapidly. So, we should be able to make a vaccine.

But there is no way of predicting how protective the immune response will be or how long it will last. There has been some good news. Macaques that were challenged with the virus developed protective immunity, and we know many patients had a potent immune response. Having many different types of vaccine should increase our chances of getting a good one.

If you can bear me pushing the exploration analogy, now imagine that your journey to Easter Island involves a home-made plane.  It is good if it flies but deadly if it does not. Previous work, both in humans and cats, suggested that not only are some corona virus vaccines ineffective, in some cases they can be problematic. Rather than protecting against the disease, an early vaccine against SARS that was tested in animals made the disease worse. It turned out that the molecules the body makes to neutralise the virus, the antibodies, bound the virus and carried it into a type of cell called a macrophage. It is not expected that this will happen with SARS-CoV2 because it doesn’t appear to grow in macrophages, and researchers have found ways around this problem anyway, but make no mistake the safety tests on any vaccine will not be cut short. We will want to make sure our sea-plane is safe.

The inherent challenges with producing a vaccine have pushed me towards the alternative strategy of locally eradicating the virus in Australia, which seems to be the path most island states are taking. I don’t know how long it will be before we have a vaccine but I am pretty confident if we could keep doing physical distancing properly we could eradicate the virus, first in South Australia, Western Australia and Canberra, and then inspired by these successes across the whole continent, in weeks or at most months. Perhaps we cannot keep distancing but to me that seems the fastest way to re-open the local economy with confidence.

I would like to see universities re-opening and the researchers in our vaccine labs, who collaborate well and exchange information on Zoom, inching out of isolation and meeting in person with some of our great biotech companies and coming together to launch the scale-up and production of not one but several Australian vaccines. Which I am sure, like Ian Fraser’s famous papilloma vaccine, would gladly be shared with the world.

Things have gone well in our island home. A strong alliance of health professionals, scientists, and political leaders, supported by a rational society that deserves more credit than it is sometimes given, has put us in a good position. We’ve got a bit of time now to think about things and explore our island. We may not need the second airport in Sydney for a year or so, but I keep thinking, now that we have got our bearings, I wonder should we get together and start working to build that fast train to Canberra.


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