Australia's Doherty Institute has announced they have grown the Wuhan coronavirus in the lab, and have shared the cultured virus with colleagues worldwide through the World Health Organization (WHO). The second aspect is crucial – a Chinese lab had previously cultured the virus, but not shared it with researchers in the rest of the world, limiting other's capacity to diagnose the condition and work towards a cure.
The virus was cultured from material collected from Melbourne's first coronavirus patient, who had been diagnosed barely 48 hours previously. At a press conference the Institute's Deputy Director Dr Mike Catton described virus culturing as “an art”, one which the Doherty Institute has been practicing for years, studying related coronaviruses in anticipation that an outbreak like this one was coming.
Labs elsewhere have been working to culture the virus since their respective nations had their first diagnosed cases too, but have so far been unsuccessful. Dr Julian Druce, who led the project, attributed his team's success to holding onto old-style culturing techniques that others have abandoned, with fresh cells permanently available should a crisis such as this one arise.
Catton added that having the virus would improve the ability of researchers to test the effectiveness of vaccines. “It also gives us the opportunity to create a first-generation antibody test,” Catton added. That would be an exceptionally valuable tool because it would make it much easier to identify people who have caught the virus but shown no symptoms. With new evidence showing asymptomatic people can still pass the virus on, that's essential to stemming the tide.
Antibody tests will also help epidemiologists work out how the virus spreads and where it is most likely to go next “The real virus means we now have the ability to actually validate and verify all test methods, and compare their sensitivities and specificities – it will be a game-changer for diagnosis,” Druce said in a statement.
The University of Queensland, like the Doherty, has seen coronaviruses as a rising threat spurred by increased air travel. They have predicted new technologies developed for just such an emergency will lead to a Wuhan coronavirus vaccine within six months. It is hoped that access to the cultured virus will shorten that timeframe, although with reported cases doubling almost every second day, that still looks like a dangerously long time to wait.
By chance, Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, was filming the lab at the time when the final test confirmed the culturing had been successful; a rare case of a “Eureka moment” being witnessed by the media.
It's not clear why the original Chinese culturing has not been shared internationally. However, Druce credited their release of the virus's genome sequence with helping his team.