The Victorian COVID-19 Vaccinees Collection (VC2), established at the Doherty Institute in May 2021, has collected hundreds of participants’ saliva and blood samples both before and after vaccinations and infections, providing a resource for crucial investigations into variants, immunity and vaccines over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
University of Melbourne Dr Miranda Smith, Academic Specialist – Collaborative Research at the Doherty Institute explains that the VC2 enables important disease insights to be made more quickly and easily than an ad-hoc approach to specimen collection.
“VC2 is a central resource for Victorian researchers to draw upon blood and saliva samples taken from a range of people before and after COVID-19 vaccinations, and across the range of variants and waves – relieving the cost burden on individual labs to collect and store these samples,” says Dr Smith.
Successive lockdowns across Melbourne in 2021 required the VC2 team to adapt their strategy to secure samples, moving beyond drawing participants from vaccination hubs to inviting participants to sign-up via the VC2 website for a sample collection pack to be dispatched by mail to their homes.
“Participants receive the pack in the post, with the instructions and sample tubes needed for their study visit. The participant just takes the pack along to their local Melbourne Pathology site, where samples are taken,” explains Dr Smith.
“Pathology then delivers the samples to a lab accredited by the Immunovirology Research Network for processing and adding to the VC2 collection.”
It’s been an effective method of collecting samples that has continued post-lockdowns.
The variety of VC2 participants across the Victorian community allows researchers to undertake specialised research investigations using the VC2 biobank samples, focusing on community groups and their unique experiences of COVID-19 infection.
“Researchers can undertake studies on the longevity of the vaccination response – how quickly vaccine protection wanes. Furthermore, with community transmission of COVID-19, studies can investigate how vaccines influence infection with COVID-19 variants and if infections boost any vaccine-induced immune responses,” says Dr Smith.
Understanding the long-term impacts of COVID-19 vaccination will be important across groups of people who may respond differently to the vaccines, including older people, people who are immunocompromised (including pregnant women) and those with underlying health conditions.
“There are also more ‘niche’ questions that VC2 could help investigate, for example, comparing the six-month post-vaccination immune response in people aged over 65 to younger people, or the immune response to COVID-19 for people being treated for HIV,” says Dr Smith.
First announced in June 2021, University of Melbourne Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute, said the creation of a vaccine biobank was vital to centralising and coordinating Victorian coronavirus research knowledge and resources.
“To understand vaccine responses in detail, researchers need access to carefully prepared cell and plasma/serum samples from a variety of people before and after vaccination,” says Professor Lewin.
“It will be a powerful resource enabling many more investigations to take place and we are very thankful that the Victorian Government saw the benefit in it.”
Funded with $5 million from the Victorian Government, Victorian Minister for Innovation, Medical Research and the Digital Economy Jaala Pulford said at the launch that the funding would allow Victoria’s extraordinary medical research institutes to continue their incredible work.
“This new biobank will be a key part of the vaccine roll-out, allowing researchers to monitor the effects of vaccines and prepare for any new strains we might have to confront,” said Minister Pulford.
To kick-start innovative research using the VC2 biobank, VC2 COVID-19 Seed Funding Grants are being offered to eligible Victorian researchers in 2022 to support novel and impactful projects using the samples.
VC2 is led by the Doherty Institute and supported by a Scientific Review Committee with representatives across Victoria’s research institutions including Austin Health, Monash Health, Western Health, Alfred Health, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and Melbourne Health.
In the longer term, it is hoped VC2 will become a flagship for national biobanking by coming under the custodianship of the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research in Infectious Disease Emergencies (APPRISE), which works with researchers around Australia to develop collaborative approaches to biobanking.