• Coronavirus could rapidly get worse and become even deadlier, virologist warns
  • 600 Australians are stranded in ground zero Wuhan, Qantas plane on standby 
  • Nine people in Australia are confirmed to be infected with novel coronavirus 
  • All arrived in Australia from China, where the outbreak began in December
  • Almost 2,000 were on their planes and hundreds of others exposed afterwards
  • Most Chinese visitors pass through Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane’s airports
  • Universities in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have the most Chinese students
  • Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast are the top Chinese tourism destinations 

The coronavirus outbreak could rapidly get worse and become even deadlier as it continues to spread worldwide, a leading Australian virologist has warned.

Professor Trevor Drew is the director of the CSRIO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratory in regional Victoria, where fast-tracked efforts to develop a vaccine for the virus are now underway.

His chilling warning comes as a Qantas jet waits on standby to fly to Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus which is in lockdown, where around 600 Australians are stranded.

Just over a quarter of those Australians have registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs to be evacuated.

People wearing protective face masks to protect themselves from Coronavirus are seen at Brisbane International Airport

People wearing protective face masks to protect themselves from Coronavirus are seen at Brisbane International Airport

Thousands of people could have been exposed to coronavirus in Australia by the country's nine confirmed patients alone

Thousands of people could have been exposed to coronavirus in Australia by the country’s nine confirmed patients alone

The jet is expected fly to Wuhan as soon as Chinese authorities give the all clear.

The plane could leave the virus-stricken city as early as Monday morning, when it will then fly stranded Australians to Christmas Island, where a disaster response team has already been sent.

They will stay at a quarantine centre on the island 2,600 kilometres from the mainland for two weeks before they return home.

Professor Drew told The Australian previous research in pigs showed how coronavirus could become more lethal over time.

He said the contagion needs to be regarded as a ‘cloud’ of closely matched pathogens rather than one virus with the potential to become even deadlier in ‘a ‘high-host-density environment’ such as China.’You may well find that more virulent viruses emerge from that cloud,’ Professor Drew said. 

‘What I am thinking might be happening here is not that people have been infected for some time with this virus, but that it is finding a new niche rather more slowly and that could ultimately cause more of a problem than we have seen with other diseases because it is not so spectacular early on in its evolution.’

Professor Drew said Chinese authorities have recognised the outbreak could be worse than the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Professor Drew is leading the fast-tracked development of a coronavirus vaccine at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, a high-containment facility in Geelong.

It is the only physical containment laboratory of its kind in Australia and one of five in the world.

Preclinical trials could be underway by March and a vaccine developed within four months.

‘Our role is to take the knowledge that we will be gaining from how this virus behaves and then creating the biological platforms that are necessary for developing and trialling vaccine candidates,’ CSIRO Director of Health and Biosecurity Rob Grenfell told reporters on Friday.

Research team races to make a Wuhan coronavirus vaccine
A man wearing a face mask cycles past the body of a man who collapsed and died on a pavement in Wuhan, a city of 11million people which is under quarantine

A man wearing a face mask cycles past the body of a man who collapsed and died on a pavement in Wuhan, a city of 11million people which is under quarantine

CSIRO virology expert Dr Trevor Drew (left) and Director of AAHL CSIRO biosecurity expert Dr Rob Grenfell (right) addressed reporters on Friday

CSIRO virology expert Dr Trevor Drew (left) and Director of AAHL CSIRO biosecurity expert Dr Rob Grenfell (right) addressed reporters on Friday

Australia's gateways, major tourist destinations, universities and suburbs with large numbers of Chinese in Sydney and Melbourne have emerged as the frontline in the fight against deadly coronavirus. Passengers are pictured at Brisbane Airport on Friday

Australia’s gateways, major tourist destinations, universities and suburbs with large numbers of Chinese in Sydney and Melbourne have emerged as the frontline in the fight against deadly coronavirus. Passengers are pictured at Brisbane Airport on Friday

No proven therapy

There are currently no proven therapies for the latest outbreak, which authorities believe originated from a seafood market in Wuhan China. Hong Kong researchers claimed Tuesday they have already developed a vaccine for the virus but warned that it will “take months” to test the vaccine on animals and another year to conduct trials on humans before it is ready.

While U.S. officials hope to start human trials on a vaccine in as little as three months, that timeline is optimistic, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. It could take a year or more before a vaccine is ready for sale to the public, he told reporters on a call Tuesday, adding that a phase 1 trial also does not mean “you have a vaccine that’s ready for deployment.”

The National Institutes of Health is working with biotech company Moderna to develop a vaccine using the current strain of the coronavirus, Fauci said.

“It will take three months to get it into the trial, three months to get safety, immunogenicity data,” Fauci said. “Then you move into phase 2. What we do from that point on will be determined by what has happened with the outbreak over those months.”

SARS as a model

Scientists are also looking at the 2003 outbreak of SARS, Fauci said, adding that “there could be some cross-reactivity” between the SARS virus and the new coronavirus “that could be utilized.”

In addition to Moderna, at least a dozen drug companies, including Johnson & Johnson, are working to create a potential vaccine.

Dr. Paul Stoffels, J&J’s chief scientific officer, told CNBC earlier this week that the drugmaker could create a vaccine in the coming months to fight against the fast-spreading virus. But he added it could take up to a year to bring it to market.

In the meantime, local authorities in China are using Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug Remdesivir, which was tested as a possible treatment during the Ebola outbreak, U.S. health officials said on the call Tuesday. Some authorities are also using antiviral drug Kaletra, developed by drugmaker AbbVie, on a “compassionate basis.”