Researchers in Melbourne, Australia, are the first outside China to announce that they’ve grown the new coronavirus in cell culture. The group at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity says it isolated the virus from the first person diagnosed with the infection in Australia, on 25 January.

The team will now share the virus with research labs around the world recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to help the development of more accurate diagnostic tests and vaccines, says Mike Catton, a deputy director of the institute. “There are some things that are much easier to do when you have the virus,” says Catton.

Although scientists in China say they’ve been able to grow the virus in the lab, they have not yet shared samples with international researchers—they have shared only the virus’s genetic sequence, says Julian Druce, head of the Virus Identification Laboratory at the Doherty Institute. He says he and his team had heard that labs outside China had struggled to grow the virus, but they found it quite easy. He thinks the success was due to the lab’s combined expertise in diagnosing infections as well as isolating and growing viruses in culture. “We’ve got two parts of the puzzle together in one laboratory,” he says.

Catton says having samples of the virus will enable scientists to create tests that can detect specific immune cells—antibodies—that indicate whether a person has been infected with the new virus. Such tests are especially useful for people with mild or no symptoms. Making a test for antibodies is difficult without samples of the virus, he says.

A study of a family in Shenzhen, China, identified a child who was infected with the virus but showed no symptoms. The WHO has also reported that three people with the infection outside China have been asymptomatic.

Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, says the Melbourne group’s announcement is fantastic news. He says lab-grown samples are essential for research into the behaviour of the virus in culture or in animal hosts. Although virus samples can also be used to validate molecular diagnostic tests, most labs have moved away from using whole viruses in favour of synthetically producing parts of the virus from partial genomes, says Mackay.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on January 29 2020.