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

Melbourne neuroscientists pioneer new approaches to Parkinson’s disease

A dedicated team of scientists at the Florey including Professor Kevin Barnham and Dr Leah Beauchamp are pioneering new approaches to diagnose and treat Parkinson’s disease and examining the potential link between COVID-19 and increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.

Early diagnosis key to moving forward in Parkinson’s

Professor Kevin Barnham viewing brain scans
Professor Kevin Barnham viewing brain scans

According to Professor Barnham shifting the way we think about and approach the disease is essential to tackling Parkinson’s.

“A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease in the clinical setting currently relies on the person presenting with movement dysfunction, but research shows that 50-70% of dopamine cell loss in the brain has already occurred by this time. Waiting until this stage to diagnose and treat Parkinson’s disease means you’ve probably already missed the window for neuroprotective therapies to have their intended effect,” explained Professor Barnham.

“I liken the manifestation of Parkinson’s to a bomb with a really long fuse which we think is about ten to twenty years long and by the time we see people present in the clinic the bomb has already exploded. While excellent treatments are available to manage symptoms, our work is trying to understand the fuse and what can be done to disarm it well ahead of time,”

Professor Kevin Barnham

“Parkinson’s may have once been thought of as a disease of old age, but what we’re now starting to realise is that it’s more likely starting in middle-age.”

The research group believe olfaction changes could be amid signs that the fuse is lit.

“Loss of smell or reduced smell is a symptom that presents in around 90% of people in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and about a decade ahead of motor symptoms. We believe this symptom could present a new way forward in detecting someone’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease much early then what happens currently,” said Dr Leah Beauchamp.

The team, which also includes Professor David Finkelstein and Professor Ashley Bush and their clinical collaborator and neurologist, Dr Andrew Evans, have been considering new measures to be able to diagnose Parkinson’s easier and earlier.

Among these is a simple, cost-effective screening protocol which they hope can be used to identify people in the community at risk of developing Parkinson’s, or who are in early stages of the disease, at a time when therapies have the greatest potential to prevent disease progression and onset of movement dysfunction. 

In 2020, Florey researchers published critical new findings suggesting that that people with REM sleep behaviour disorder have prodromal, or early-stage, Parkinson’s disease. The team believe that this cohort represents an ideal group of people to participate in clinical trials of neuroprotective therapies as they have a higher predisposition to go on to develop the disease, but don’t have the same level of dopamine cell loss in the brain as people in later stages of Parkinson’s. Put simply, neuroprotective therapies, including the two treatments developed by Florey researchers under clinical investigation, may be able to better deliver their intended effects to this cohort.

Professor Barnham reflects on the way forward. “I’m reminded of NASA and what is seen as one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century. There was no scientific impediment stopping NASA going to the moon. They got there because they decided to go. It’s as simple as that. We can prevent Parkinson’s disease if as a society we decide to make that commitment.”

Parkinson’s expertise leads to neurological warning signs of COVID-19

When reports of loss of smell in people infected with coronavirus started surfacing in early 2020, it set off red flags for the Florey’s Parkinson’s researchers. They began investigating the scope of neurological symptoms associated with the virus and were among the first in the world to publish a review paper warning of the possible long-term neurological consequences of COVID-19.

Dr Leah Beauchamp in the lab at The Florey Institute
Dr Leah Beauchamp in the lab at The Florey Institute

“We found that neurological symptoms being reported ranged from rare, such as lack of oxygen to the brain known as brain hypoxia, to more common symptoms such as loss of smell which was on average reported in three out of four people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” said Dr Beauchamp.

“While on the surface loss of smell or reduced smell can appear as little cause for concern, it actually tells us that acutely there is inflammation occurring in the olfactory system,”

Dr Leah Beauchamp

Inflammation is considered to play a major role in the pathogenesis of neurogenerative disease. It has been particularly well studied in Parkinson’s, among a mosaic of genetic and environmental factors understood to increase one’s risk of developing the disease.

Research now suggests that in the years following the last global viral pandemic, the Spanish Flu in 1918, the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease increased two to three-fold worldwide.

“We should take this insight from the Spanish Flu and take action to prevent a neurological wave of diseases that could possibly unfold down track as a result of the coronavirus”, said Professor Barnham.

“It is incredibly concerning to think that the incidence of Parkinson’s disease is already set to double in the next 20 years with no disease-modifying treatments available, before even considering potential effects of COVID-19,” he said. “The world was caught off guard the first-time, but it doesn’t need to be again. We now know what needs to be done. Alongside a strategised public health approach, tools for early diagnosis and better treatments are key.”

ABC Evening News: Prof Kevin Barnham and Dr Leah Beauchamp on neurological consequences of COVID-19