By Renju Jose and Sonali Paul
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian researchers hope to start human trials of a coronavirus antibody therapy in early 2021, while a large-scale trial of a vaccine could begin by the end of this year, scientists said on Wednesday.
The research targets came as the country's virus hotspot, Victoria state, recorded its second-most deadly day of the pandemic with 24 deaths. Just 156 new cases were reported nationwide on Wednesday, mostly in Victoria, well down from daily rises of more than 700 about three weeks ago.
Melbourne's Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has made good progress in identifying the most potent antibodies that could neutralise the spike protein on the virus that causes COVID-19, stopping it from being able to enter human cells, researcher Wai-Hong Tam said.
Antibody therapies would be most useful for the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, she said.
Almost 64% of Australia's 549 deaths from COVID-19 have occurred among residents of aged-care homes, mostly in Victoria.
"If we're very hopeful, we are looking at clinical trials early next year," Tam told reporters.
Separately, the University of Queensland said its scientists had reported to the International Society for Vaccines that their "molecular clamp" vaccine had been found to be effective in hamsters and could be manufactured at scale.
Assuming the team's ongoing phase 1 clinical trial shows adequate safety and immune responses, its partner, CSL Ltd <CSL.AX>, could start a large-scale study before the end of this year, UQ project co-leader Keith Chappell said.
The "molecular clamp" technology adds a gene to viral proteins to stabilise them and trick the body into thinking it is seeing a live virus so it makes antibodies against it.
The Australian government meanwhile committed A$80 million to ensure Southeast Asian and Pacific nations would have affordable access to any COVID-19 vaccines.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
With new cases declining, Victoria's government has come under fire for seeking to extend a state of emergency by another year. Premier Daniel Andrews said the government needed the legal certainty to be able to set restrictions, which would be the "lightest touch possible" while the economy reopens.
"The opening up process and the repair work will not be quick. It will take time," Andrews told reporters.
To help the national economic recovery, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a A$1 billion ($719 million) investment to boost the defence industry.
Australia's total COVID-19 cases rose to 25,205, with 549 deaths, much lower than most other developed nations on a per-capita basis.
Neigbouring New Zealand, which extended a lockdown in its biggest city Auckland this week to contain an outbreak, reported five new cases, for a total of 1,344 cases.
(Reporting by Renju Jose and Sonali Paul; Editing by Stephen Coates)