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Research examines how to identify and improve Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness

Posted: Wednesday 12 May 2021

A new research partnership between Federation University and Ballarat Health Service (BHS) will examine how COVID-19 vaccines work within the body, and how the rate of effectiveness can be improved in those who do not develop antibodies to facilitate resistance to the disease. 

Global studies have proven that AstraZeneca (the adenovirus vectored vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 (AZD1222) is a highly effective vaccine, and protects against COVID-19.  

  • After the first dose of the vaccine, those vaccinated are over 90 per cent less likely to be hospitalised with COVID-19. 

  • With two doses of the vaccine, spaced 12 weeks apart, those vaccinated are 80 per cent less likely to get sick with COVID-19. 

Currently, there is no way to identify those in whom the vaccine may not be effective before administration - and the person may then become seriously unwell with COVID-19.   This research will focus on that 10-20 percent of the population, with the aim of identifying why they fail to develop resistance, and what measures can be taken to potentially improve the rate of effectiveness. 

The Federation University research group led by immunologist Prof Stuart Berzins is collaborating with Dr Stephen Brown and Dr Wasek Faisal from BHS to investigate the role of specialised immune cells called ‘MAIT cells’ in generating an effective response to the COVID-19 vaccine.  

Researchers from the Peter Doherty Institute of Medical Research at the University of Melbourne are supporting the study by providing state-of-the-art resources, allowing the team to test the effectiveness of the vaccination.  

Federation University Professor of Immunology, Stuart Berzins, in the School of Science, Psychology and Sport, is one of a handful of scientists worldwide with specific expertise in the field of Mucosal Associated Invariant T (or MAIT) cells. 

MAIT cell are capable of regulating the functions of other immune cells and can be important for the effectiveness of some vaccines. AstraZeneca is one such vaccine, and as it is being produced in Australia and will be used by the majority of Australian’s who choose to be vaccinated, it is the vaccine the research will focus upon. 

Interestingly, the frequency of MAIT cells varies considerably across the human population and there is speculation that this may be a factor in determining vaccine effectiveness.  

Blood samples will be taken from individuals participating in the study before and after vaccination to determine if the frequency and function of their MAIT cells correlates with the effectiveness of the vaccine.  

Participants in the study will include healthy donors and a subset of BHS patients with cancer, where immune deficiencies, including MAIT cell abnormalities, are known to be common.  

If a correlation is found, it may then be possible to identify and pre-emptively treat individuals who require additional protection from COVID-19. 

Quotes attributable to the Professor of Immunology, Federation University, Professor Stuart Berzins 

“This study will investigate the role of MAIT cells in generating immunity against COVID-19 following vaccination. We are partnering with Ballarat Health Services to investigate this in healthy individuals and in individuals with a cancer diagnosis.” 

“This study will provide a better understanding of the immune factors that are important for optimising vaccine effectiveness and may help develop a means of predicting which individuals may not respond optimally to vaccines so that we can identify and improve protection for these people.” 

“The findings generated by this study may help to optimise our vaccination response against COVID-19 and may provide novel avenues to more broadly improve vaccine design and treatment protocols. “ 

Quotes attributable to Dr Stephen Brown, Head of Oncology, Ballarat Health Service  

“The study will correlate immune composition pre-vaccination with vaccine effectiveness (measured by assessing anti-COVID-19-spike responses by T and B cells) before and after vaccine doses.” 

“It follows studies showing the importance of MAIT cells for effective immunisation from vaccines that use adenovirus, such as AstraZeneca.”  

“Testing the immune response in individuals with cancer is extremely valuable because these individuals are often immune compromised, and it is important to determine how well they are protected by vaccination against COVID-19.” 

Quotes attributable to Dr Wasek Faisal, Senior Oncologist, Ballarat Health Service 

“Federation University and BHS have a shared interest in world class medical research and this study is a perfect example where we can work together to address important problems.” 

“Cancer patients can have an increased risk of infections so it is critically important to understand how effective vaccinations are in protecting this group against COVID-19 and to identify the immune cells that are the most important factors so we can eventually provide even more effective protection.” 

Contact Stephanie Charalambous
Media and Communications Advisor
0429 360 727