Growing and sharing the virus that changed the world

At the helm of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, researchers at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) at the Doherty Institute diagnosed Australia’s first COVID-19 case and successfully grew the SARS-CoV-2 virus in culture, which would later be shared with laboratories around the world.

This achievement sparked an enormous amount of global attention from scientists, media, politicians and philanthropists, and set the tone for research, testing and public health initiatives for the months to come.

The years of preparation that came before

Let’s take a step back to the years of testing and preparation that came before. VIDRL Director and Doherty Institute Co-Deputy Director, Dr Mike Catton, said the team was well-positioned to be ready for COVID-19 testing given their experience in 2007 when they successfully diagnosed an arenavirus associated with a transplant associated cluster of three deaths in Melbourne through whole genome sequencing.

“This took three to four months and we knew at the time it wouldn’t be useful in a pandemic outbreak scenario. So we designed a whole set of pan-viral family PCR tests.”

“These tests have been ready to detect novel viruses from about 2010.”

Dr Mike Catton
Dr Julian Druce and Dr Mike Catton address the media in January 2020

He continued, “When the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak happened, we were able to test the assays in detecting a new coronavirus, and so were pretty comfortable that it would work.”

Pan-viral family tests are designed to return a positive result for a given virus family and identification of something new is by genetic sequencing of this test product.

In addition to developing a test, VIDRL’s facility and equipment were ready for surge.

“There was a legionella outbreak when the Melbourne Aquarium opened in 2000 and we were inundated with tests. I thought to myself then, if this were an influenza pandemic we would really struggle to keep up with demand,” Dr Catton said.

“So we developed a high-throughput PCR test capacity which involved designing workflows and getting the equipment ready so that we could push lots of tests through if necessary. Over the ensuing years and smaller outbreaks like SARS, we identified and smoothed over cracks in the system.

“The biggest road test was during the 2009 influenza pandemic when enormous numbers of influenza PCR tests were conducted.”

Diagnosing Australia’s first COVID-19 case

VIDRL diagnosed the first COVID-19 case in Australia on Saturday 25 January 2020. At the peak of the pandemic in Victoria, the facility was processing thousands of tests a day which was thirty times more than what was previously considered a busy day.

“We had the technology, the test and the facility. An important part of its success were the people. As well as our own staff, the postdoctoral researchers and PhD students put their hands up to supplement the workflow.”

Dr Catton

It was years of innovation and hard work that ensured VIDRL was in the position to be one of the most prepared public health laboratories in the country to respond to a coronavirus pandemic. Then the big moment arrived.

Overflow of COVID-19 samples being processed
Overflow of COVID-19 samples being processed

The big moment: growing the SARS-COV-2 virus

“We had a tantalising piece of information that we knew from an early World Health Organization meeting that the virus had been grown in China, but they didn’t say how easy it was. Seasonal coronaviruses are notoriously difficult to grow,” said Dr Julian Druce, Head of the Virus Identification Laboratory at VIDRL.

“I still get tingles down the back of my neck when I think about the moment of looking down the microscope and seeing a change in the cell culture, which indicated it was likely growing.”

Dr Druce started filming through a microscope that takes a photo every 15 minutes to assemble into a video file. That gave the team the opportunity to check in on the progress from home.

“It was abundantly clear that we had been successful in growing SARS-CoV-2. I called Mike to let him know and said we have to share it,” he said.

The postdoctoral researchers and PhD students all put their hands up to supplement the workflow

Sharing their discovery with the world

VIDRL have experienced difficulties in the past with accessing other viruses grown in culture and observed other labs around the world in similar predicaments.

“Being able to grow the virus is crucial as it allows accurate investigation and diagnosis. While we didn’t know at the time how devastating COVID-19 was going to be, it was clear to us as global citizens that we needed to share our breakthrough. It was the right instinct,” Dr Catton said.

As of June 2020, infectious viruses grown in VIDRL’s laboratories had been sent to 23 labs around the world, including Belgium, UK, Netherlands, Germany, Russia, USA and Canada, as well as two European repositories for onward sharing.

VIDRL continued supporting private and public laboratories in Victoria and around Australia throughout 2020, and offered capacity building for laboratories in neighbouring countries as they had done for years prior to the pandemic.

A sample of the COVID-19 virus