11/12/2020 9:36 AM AEDT | Updated 11/12/2020 7:18 PM AEDT

Australia Abandons Local COVID-19 Vaccine After False Positive HIV Results

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday announced the government made the decision after receiving scientific advice.

Sam Mooy via Getty Images
Australia's Minister for Health Greg Hunt (left), Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy (centre) during a press conference in the Prime Ministers courtyard on December 11, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. Clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Queensland in partnership with biotech company CSL will be abandoned, after the Federal Government had committed to purchasing, and agreements had been made to secure 51 million doses of the vaccine.

Clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Queensland and biotech firm CSL have been scrapped after participants returned false positive HIV test results in phase one of the trial.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday announced the government made the decision after receiving scientific advice. 

“The 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,” he told reporters. 

The PM stressed that the blow was not a surprise as the government was prepared for some vaccine candidates to fail.

“Our vaccine policy had identified four vaccines that we believed - based on the scientific advice - had the potential to go through to the end of stage three trials and be available here in Australia,” he said. 

“At no stage, can I assure you, that we believed that all four of those vaccines would likely get through that process.”

While there were no serious adverse effects seen in the phase one trial of 216 participants, data showed antibodies that had developed interfered with HIV diagnosis and led to false positives on some HIV tests, biotech company CSL said.

Given the results, CSL said it had come to a decision with the Australian government to stop phase two and phase three trials of the vaccine.

“This outcome highlights the risk of failure associated with early vaccine development, and the rigorous assessment involved in making decisions as to what discoveries advance,” said Andrew Nash, CSL’s chief scientific officer.

Margaret Keenan became the first patient in the UK to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday Dec. 8, 2020.

CSL, however, agreed to make another 20 million doses of AstraZeneca and Oxford University’s vaccine, on top of the 30 million doses already underway at the request of the government. The first doses are expected in Australia early next year.

“I said at the start of vaccine development, that there are no guarantees,” University of Queensland’s vaccine co-lead, Paul Young, said in a statement released by CSL.

The company said phase one trials of the vaccine would continue and further data analysis would be submitted for peer review in the future.

Australia is scheduled to start vaccinations in March 2021 and expects to inoculate its whole population by the end of the year. 

All up, Australia has secured 140 million vaccine units to inoculate its 25 million people, one of the highest ratios of vaccine purchases to population in the world, officials said.

“We want to ensure that Australians ... have full confidence, absolute full confidence that when it gets the tick, they can get the jab, and they can make that decision for themselves and for their families, confidently,” Morrison told reporters.

Despite suffering significant economic hits due to COVID-19, Australian consumer sentiment is climbing again as the country re-emerges from the pandemic faster than most.

Australia’s tally of 28,000 COVID-19 infections is far fewer than in many other developed countries, and with only sporadic cases of the virus now showing up, it has not raced to start vaccinations as in North America and parts of Europe.

With files from Reuters.