New Australian research centre aims to speed up pandemic drug discovery

The centre will focus on platforms, aiming to find new ways of treating and ultimately stopping viruses. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - A new research institution being launched in Australia will aim to develop drugs to treat diseases caused by pathogens with the potential to cause global pandemics more quickly.

The Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics, based in Melbourne, is the latest in a series of similar initiatives, including from the National Institutes for Health in the United States and the Pandemic Antiviral Discovery (PAD), a group led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners.

Vaccines to protect against Covid-19 were developed in record time, but antiviral drugs took longer, with the first approved for use just under two years after Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019.

The team behind the new centre in Australia want to speed up that process. They are branding themselves as the "CEPI of therapeutics", referring to the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness and Response, a global partnership that helped to fund the rapid development of some Covid-19 vaccines.

The Cumming Centre is backed by a A$250 million (S$240 billion) donation from Mr Geoff Cumming, a Canadian businessman now living in Australia, for use over two decades. The Centre aims to ultimately raise A$1.5 billion, including funding from governments.

Rather than targeting particular diseases, the Centre will focus on platforms, aiming to find new ways of treating and ultimately stopping viruses from HIV to influenza, as well as coronaviruses and others that could cause global outbreaks.

"Our goal is to develop and invest in new technologies that will allow much more rapid development of anti-viral therapeutics - a bit like how we could make a vaccine so quickly, with mRNA, because all we needed was a target sequence," said Dr Sharon Lewin, an HIV researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne, who will lead the Centre.

"We need those technologies because with the existing technologies, there isn't a way to speed up what we currently do. And we've seen antivirals actually play a really important role in pandemics. You can save a lot of lives with antiviral drugs," she said in an interview.

Dr Lewin said there were three approaches that had promise: Nucleic acid therapeutics, treatments that modulate the innate immune response, and developing cheaper and simpler to use antibody therapies.

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