Australian Scientists Develop Coronavirus in Lab as Evacuated Aussies Sent to Christmas Island

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 29, 2020
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Scientists in Australia on Jan. 29 became the first to successfully develop a lab-grown version of coronavirus outside of China in what they called a “significant breakthrough,” as Australia announced it would help evacuate citizens from the epicenter of the outbreak for quarantine on Christmas Island.

The team of scientists at the Melbourne-based Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity said they grew the coronavirus sample from a patient who had been infected since Friday.

The researchers said they will now share it with the World Health Organization (WHO), which will then share it with laboratories around the world, as scientists race to create a vaccine for the virus to help curb the global spread of the illness.

A laboratory in China had successfully grown the virus but had released only the genome sequence, not the sample itself, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reported.

A still image taken from a time lapse video shows novel coronavirus
A still image taken from a time lapse video shows novel coronavirus 2019-nCov growing in Vero E6 cells, in Melbourne, Australia, released Jan. 29, 2020. (Dr Julian Druce – Vidrl, The Doherty Institute via Reuters)

Julian Druce, the Doherty Institute’s virus identification laboratory head, highlighted the significance of the development of the Australia-grown virus sample, calling it a “game changer” for diagnosis.

“It’s an exact match to the sequence from China,” he said on Wednesday.

“Having the real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities.

“The virus will be used as positive control material for the Australian network of public health laboratories, and also shipped to expert laboratories working closely with the World Health Organization in Europe,” he added.

Experts have said that the Chinese regime is likely underreporting the true scale of the coronavirus.

The most common symptom of the virus is a high fever. However, other symptoms include breathlessness, a sore throat, and a cough. Severe cases of infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, and even death, according to the WHO. It spreads in droplets from coughs and sneezes and has an incubation period of up to 14 days.

The institute explained that the lab-grown virus sample would be used to generate an antibody test, which would allow detection of the virus in patients who had not shown symptoms, as well as contributing to the creation of a vaccine.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia now stand at five. Official travel advice for citizens was on Wednesday upgraded to “reconsider all travel to China.”

Aussies to be Evacuated to Christmas Island

News of the breakthrough came as Australia said it would help some citizens leave Hubei and quarantine them for 14 days on Christmas Island, a remote speck in the Indian Ocean best known for housing asylum seekers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the announcement on Wednesday, following a briefing by the Chinese regime.

“We have taken a decision this morning to prepare a plan for an operation to provide some assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australians in Wuhan and the Hubei province,” he told reporters in Canberra.

The United States, Japan, and South Korea have taken similar measures to evacuate their citizens.

Morrison did not specify how many Australians the government would be able to assist out of the 600 Australians registered in Hubei province, but said individuals would be evacuated on a last-in, first-out basis.

The elderly, children, and short-term travelers who have no support base in the region will be prioritized, he said.

“But I stress there is rather a limited window here and we are moving very, very swiftly to ensure we can put this plan together and put the operation together,” he added.

Morrison said the Australian Medical Assistance Teams will be sent to Christmas Island to provide medical support.

“I also want to stress that for Christmas Island, we will be ensuring there will be support provided directly to the Christmas Island community completely separate and quarantined from the support that is being provided in the quarantine zone,” he said.

“The quarantine declaration will be made by the government to give effect to those arrangements.

“The defence forces have been tasked to identify overflow facilities where that may be necessary and also to provide whatever logistical and other support is necessary to support the operations on Christmas Island,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.