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

A person walks past a sign for a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) assessment clinic in Sydney in Sydney
A person walks past a sign for a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) assessment clinic in Sydney in Sydney

Clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Australia’s University of Queensland in partnership with biotech company CSL have been abandoned after participants returned false positive HIV test results. The treatment was a key part of Australia’s response to the pandemic, and the government had signed a deal to buy 51 million doses.

Vaccines typically take years of painstaking research to develop, but COVID-19 has sent scientists around the world racing to find an effective treatment.

The Australian government was no different, but it has announced the sudden termination of clinical trials of a vaccine being developed at the University of Queensland.

A small component of the experimental drug was derived from the human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV. It is used to give the vaccine stability, helping it to recognize and then neutralize the coronavirus. Some participants recorded false positive HIV test results. Researchers have stressed that the treatments are harmless and do not expose patients to the risk of disease.

Biotech giant CSL, which has worked alongside the university team in Queensland, has insisted the vaccine had a “strong safety profile.”

Phase one clinical trials involving 216 people began in July. Phases two and three have been canceled.

The University of Queensland vaccine was one of four potential coronavirus treatments secured by the Australian government for potential use next year, including the Oxford University-AstraZeneca drug.

“At no stage we believed all four of those vaccines would likely get through that process,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “If that had occurred that would have been truly extraordinary based on the process of vaccine development not only in this country but anywhere else. So, that is why we spread our risk. The advice we have received is that 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.”

Morrison said the decision to end the trial should give “Australians great assurance that we are proceeding carefully” toward a COVID-19 vaccine.

But some experts fear it could damage public confidence in the inoculation program.

The government has said Australia’s vaccine agreements will be enough to cover the entire population of 25 million people, even if one or two candidates proved unsuccessful.

Australia has recorded 28,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began, and 908 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University data.