The behind the scenes heroes of UQ’s COVID vaccine effort
From sleep-deprived scientists working around the clock to tech whizzes, lawyers, accountants, veterinarians and the man who had the job of fundraising $23.5m in mind-blowing record time.
Meet the 105 people racing to build UQ vaccine
For the first time we can reveal the 105 remarkable people who have been behind the scenes making extraordinary sacrifices and offering their own specialised skillsets to contribute to the COVID-19 vaccine development team at The University of Queensland.
These are our hidden heroes.
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Every last one says they have been honoured and privileged to be part of history in the making – the quest for a lifesaving vaccine that is stamped “made in Queensland”.
For some it was their job, and for others their efforts were voluntary.
There were those who were beyond excited to be involved as they had worked all their lives studying and researching for this precise moment.
Migrants have jumped in, wanting to give back to the country they now call home and little kids have emptied their pocket-money jars and sent their cash along with best wishes letters and creative works of art.
It’s all served to help buoy the spirits of the men and women in white coats in a corner of St Lucia, Brisbane who are working to save the world.
Ben and Karen Hughes are scientists at UQ and have two children Norah, 10 and Elliot 7. Together they have over 35 years of experience in biopharmaceutical research, development, tech transfer and commercialisation.
“We were kind of custom-made for this role. It was just extremely fortuitous that we decided to move back from the US to Brisbane in late 2019. We’d just started at UQ and went immediately into the vaccine program,” Ms Hughes said.
“We’ll always bounce ideas off one another or discuss work issues whether it is at work or home, so work is always “on” at some level.
“During the initial lockdown period we had extremely intense timelines and were tag-teaming full days at work, homeschooling the kids and taking video meetings with collaborators in Europe or the US.
“It was hard to turn off thinking about the vaccine as our meetings and work deliverables merged into home life,” she said.
Norah and Elliot have been fascinated by the work on the vaccine and super proud of their parents.
“They routinely ask if we (and they) will be first in line to get the vaccine when it’s ready. They are used to us being in meetings at home and during the lockdown Elliot would sit quietly in the background taking very cute notes and scientific shorthand diagrams of virus molecules and process steps that we were talking about.
“He still today asks us how the SARS-CoV-2 is going?” she said.
The couple is spurred on by knowing people who have not survived the virus.
Another cog in the wheel has been UQ’s Evan Morgan who worked liked never before to help raise the $23.5m needed to fast-track the vaccine.
“This has certainly been the highlight of my life. It has been something special to be involved in such an important project,” Mr Morgan, from the Vaccine Fundraising Project, said.
“It’s been heartwarming to see so many members of the community send $10 or what they could afford as they realised the need for a vaccine.
“Kids sent in money, some people donated a few thousand but one of the first big donations was from the company A2 Milk who gave $500,000 in the early days,” he said.
The world may one day thank the UQ vaccine team Prof Paul Young, Assoc Prof Keith Chappell, Prof Trent Munro and Dr Daniel Watterson for developing a vaccine that stops the killer COVID-19 in its tracks.
All eyes are on these brilliant scientists who are standing front and centre in the war but the thankyou today goes to these 105 soldiers who have emerged out of the darkness of 2020 offering a bright unified spirit of togetherness.
“We have been touched to receive stories of school kids emptying their money boxes to donate to our research effort. We have our inspiration wall, just outside the lab where we have posted all the letters wishing us well. The team and I simply can’t thank our donors and supporters enough for all they’ve done. They’ve made real contributions to tackling COVID-19,” Prof Young told The Courier-Mail.
From January 10, the day the UQ team had their first formal meeting with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to discuss the novel coronavirus, it was full speed ahead.
The next day their own molecular clamp technology was put into action in the development of the candidate vaccine.
From that day on, the team felt the arms of Queenslanders and other hero Australians holding them high and spurring them on.
“The generosity and commitment I’ve witnessed has been nothing short of amazing. And this enormous group of contributors is still not everyone who’s been involved. I’d like to thank absolutely everybody who is a part of this broader team and the ongoing journey,” Prof Young said.
“Together, we’ve been working day and night, on all fronts. We’ve had team members completing lab work, managing trials, addressing legal and regulatory requirements, raising funds to supercharge vaccine production, you name it – it’s been all hands on deck. I couldn’t be prouder of this team,” the scientist said.
When the research team needed to recruit 96 volunteers in a matter of days, thousands of Queenslanders jammed the phone lines of their partners at Nucleus Networks who were carrying out the trials.
“The volunteers wanted to help people around the world by volunteering to make a COVID-19 vaccine a reality. I’m imagining many of these people have lost hours of sleep this year,” Prof Young said.
As the work continues with hope of a UQ vaccine rollout in the middle of next year, it has been announced that Australia’s vaccine manufacturer CSL is on track to deliver the first doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine by the end of this year.
The University of Queensland has been collaborating with the Queensland Government, the Australian Government, CSL, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), TetraQ, Nucleus Networks, CSIRO, the WHO’s Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, ANU, Viroclinics, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and UQ’s UniQuest.
In the words of Assoc Prof Keith Chappell “I’ve never been part of a bigger team and we have never had so much work to do.”
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Originally published as The behind the scenes heroes of UQ’s COVID vaccine effort