Coronavirus: Aussie scientists send live virus samples around the world for study

Australian scientists have revealed how they managed to isolate the COVID-19 virus and send it to labs across the world for further research, in the hopes of finding a vaccine. 

Since emerging in China at the start of the year, the new form of coronavirus has swept the world, infecting more than 106,000 people and killing almost 4000 - that we know of.

The first team outside of China to catch the virus and study it was Australia's Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne.

A 58-year-old man arrived in the city on a flight from China on January 19, and five days later ended up in hospital suffering "symptoms of fever, cough, and progressive shortness of breath", the Medical Journal of Australia reported on Monday.

"A nasopharyngeal swab and sputum taken on presentation tested positive for SARS-CoV-2," Peter Doherty deputy director Mike Catton and colleagues wrote, using the World Health Organization's official name for the virus itself (COVID-19 is the name given to the disease it causes). 

SARS stands for 'severe acute respiratory syndrome', and sputum is the mucus found in the lower parts of the airway.  

In the samples they found a coronavirus, and once its genome was sequenced they realised it was the same as the one rapidly spreading through China.

"Within 24 hours of isolation, the first Australian viral isolate of SARS-CoV-2 was shared with domestic and international reference laboratories and major North American and European culture collections," said the scientists.

Their findings were also shared with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health agencies.

"A major principle of our laboratory response in Australia was to immediately share the viral isolate with the WHO, and we are continuing to share live virus with other agencies, both domestically and internationally, involved in the development and testing of therapeutic agents and vaccines.

"We believe this is an essential function of public health reference as well as research laboratories, and strongly encourage others to use a similar approach. The ability to propagate SARS-CoV-2 and rapidly share the isolate globally represents an important step in collaborative scientific efforts to diagnose, prevent and treat this public health emergency."

As of Sunday afternoon, Australia had 63 confirmed cases. Health experts expect official figures worldwide are probably an underestimate, with different people showing different symptoms.

"Based on clinical features, it can be difficult to distinguish patients with COVID-19 from those with other respiratory viral infections, including influenza," the Medical Journal of Australia article said.

"Although the original case series described fever in almost all patients, further experience has noted cases with only respiratory symptoms, and even a small proportion with gastrointestinal symptoms."

Two had died in Australia, as of Sunday afternoon. New Zealand has had five confirmed cases and no deaths. 

There is no vaccine yet, but several teams across the world are racing to make one. It's expected none will be ready for public dissemination for perhaps a year, however.