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Virus vaccine still a year away, minister

Jennifer Haller, left, smiles as the needle is withdrawn after she was given the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Jennifer Haller, left, smiles as the needle is withdrawn after she was given the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Monday, March 16, 2020, at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) 

Australian researchers are still at least a year away from a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says.

"I spoke yesterday with both the University of Queensland and the Doherty Institute. Progress is being made. We still think that a vaccine is in the 12-to-18 months range but it may be earlier," he told Nine's Today show.

But Mr Hunt said there had been an "exceptionally important" breakthrough by the two research teams with regards to treatment.

"This is the thing which is extremely prospective, being able to minimise the effects, particularly on the elderly, particularly on the vulnerable, and that is something which gives me real and enormous hope."

On Tuesday, researchers at Melbourne's Peter Doherty Institute for Infection announced the immune responses from one of Australia's first coronavirus patients has been mapped, which could lead to a vaccine.

Research fellow Oanh Nguyen said it was the first time broad immune responses to COVID-19 had been reported.

"Three days after the patient was admitted, we saw large populations of several immune cells, which are often a tell-tale sign of recovery during seasonal influenza infection, so we predicted that the patient would recover in three days, which is what happened," Dr Nguyen said.

By dissecting the immune response, the researchers might now be able to find an effective vaccine.

Dr Paul Griffin, a researcher from Queensland's Mater Hospital, said it was a big step forward, but the vaccine development couldn't be rushed.

"We can't cut corners with vaccine development. At every step we have to make sure we're safe and effective," he said.

Researchers hope to test the vaccine on the first healthy human volunteers in around three months.

Dr Paul Griffin said the use of anti-viral drugs to combat the coronavirus outbreak could help, but wasn't the solution.

"They obviously have an effect and we hope to evaluate it more carefully. It's not the answer we need. For something of this magnitude it will be a vaccine that will be the answer."

Meanwhile, Mr Hunt defended the testing procedure, saying authorities were focused on making sure people at risk and matching the criteria were tested, rather than broader testing.

He said 81,000 tests - one of the highest rates in the world - had been conducted with about a 0.5 per cent positive rate.

A further 97,000 test kits have been ordered. Half of those tests arrived in Australia overnight and will be distributed on Wednesday.

"What we are doing is making sure that we actually have one of the highest testing rates in the world," he said, adding they want to make sure testing is focused on those people who are most likely to be at risk.

He said that included people who had travelled overseas, been in contact with somebody who has been diagnosed, and if the person has symptoms.

© AAP 2020