OPINION PIECE | COVID-19 reminds us why we invest in Australian health and medical research

Not since World War II, has Australia and the world been under such strict constraints, with limits on where we can travel, what we can buy and who we can socialise with.

Our scientists, like our health workforce, are working around the clock, racing to find the best possible solutions to this global health crisis. As our Prime Minister has said, this crisis could last for six months and indeed beyond. It is in these trying times that Australians look to health and medical researchers for answers.

Health and medical research must also be part of the political solution, with our researchers standing next to our leaders, both advising and supporting, as they make the crucial decisions that affect everyone.

Our world-leading researchers have been helping explain what this virus is, how it behaves and spreads, how to detect it and how we can protect ourselves. For more than 80 years, we Australians have been investing in our research workforce; via the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the CSIRO, and more recently, the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) and, it is in times like these, that we reap the returns on these investments.

The sane, definitive way out of this crisis is an effective treatment for those infected and the development of a vaccine scaled up and produced en masse to protect the wider population.

Australia is leading the charge in many aspects; we have research leaders such as Professor Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, at UNSW’s Kirby Institute tracking Australia’s circumstances against the spread of COVID-19 in other nations so we can plan the next phase.  James McCaw, Professor of Mathematical Biology at the University of Melbourne is using mathematical modelling to develop scenarios that assist that decision-making.

Researchers such as Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute has her team isolating, growing and monitoring how the immune system responds to the virus. This research capability is no accident as for several years the Doherty Institute has been leading research, funded by Australia’s NHMRC, to prepare Australia for such a situation.

The University of Queensland’s Professor Paul Young is leading the team that is developing candidate vaccines and aims to commence a trial by July. They believe that by bringing vaccine manufacture forward, to run in parallel with clinical trials, they could have a vaccine ready by as early as January. Reducing the vaccine development time to 12 months would be a remarkable achievement.

Again, this is no accident; the work at UQ on new vaccine programs started in 2018 with funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and has been focused on COVID 19 since January this year. And all of this is drawing on the work of CSIRO and its expertise in handling viruses, and in vaccine manufacture.

As many of us experience anxiety and the inconvenience of the seemingly bizarre panic buying, leading behavioural researchers, such as Dr Paul Harrison, Chair of Consumer Behaviour at Deakin University, have explained this is an emotional and understandable response to fear, an attempt to regain control in an uncertain situation.

Researchers and experts have been able to give us information we need to empower us to re-assert some control; exercising basic hand hygiene, working remotely and physical distancing or isolation if exposed to the virus.

And while it is our leaders who need to make the big decisions, they are emphasising that they are acting on expert advice. And this is critical to our confidence in them, because this is what we as a community expect that the response to a pandemic is based in science, it is rational and implementable.

Together our community – political, business and community leaders; health care providers; individuals and families – will come through this current crisis, and the contributions being made by our researchers, medics and nurses are helping ensure the best possible outcome for us all.

We are in a very different place to where we were a century ago, when the Spanish Flu struck, as we can deploy our world-class capabilities to rapidly respond using evidence-based research.   This pandemic shines a massive spotlight on the crucial importance of investment in health and medical research in Australia. It is vital for our health and our national security. We are proud of our research and medical workforce and we are exceptionally grateful that they are here.

By Chris Chapman Chair and Nadia Levin, CEO and Managing Director, Research Australia on behalf of the Research Australia Board

Research Australia is the national peak body for Australian health and medical research, representing all stages of the research pipeline, from universities and medical research institutes through to health corporates, hospitals and consumers.



2015 Peter Wills Medal: Prof Sharon Lewin

Research Australia
Health & Medical Research Awards

2015 Peter Wills Medal

The Peter Wills Medal was created in 2011 to mark research Australia’s 10th anniversary. It recognises an Australian who has made an outstanding contribution to building Australia’s international reputation in the area of health & medical research, and for harnessing government, research, industry and philanthropic collaborations to promote better health

Award Winner

Professor Sharon Lewin
Inaugural Director
Peter Doherty Institute For Infection & Immunity

Sharon Lewin is the inaugural director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital; Professor of Medicine, The University of Melbourne; consultant infectious diseases physician, Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, Australia; and an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Practitioner Fellow. She is an infectious diseases physician and basic scientist.

Sharon completed her medical training (MB., BS (Hons) 1986) and her PhD (1996) in Microbiology at Monash University, Melbourne Australia. She was trained in clinical infectious diseases in Melbourne (FRACP 1996) and did her post-doctoral fellowship with Professor David Ho at the Aaron Diamond Research Centre at the Rockefeller University, New York (1997-1999). David Ho was named Time Man of the Year in 1996 for his major contribution to discovering successful antiviral therapy for HIV. She was Director, Department of Infectious Diseases, Alfred Hospital and Monash University (2003-2014) and co-head of the Centre for Biomedical Research at the Burnet Institute (2011-2014), Melbourne, Australia.

She leads a large multi-disciplinary research team that focuses on understanding why HIV persists on treatment and developing clinical trials aimed at ultimately finding a cure for HIV infection. Her other research and clinical interests include understanding how the immune system recovers following treatment of HIV and the interaction between HIV and other important co-infections including hepatitis B virus. She is widely recognized for her innovative work in understanding how HIV hides on treatment using novel laboratory models and leading several early phase clinical trials of cancer drugs that alter HIV genes. Her clinical trial program is part of a close collaboration with the Department of Infectious Diseases, Alfred Hospital and Monash University.

She has published over 200 publications and her laboratory receives funding from the NHMRC, the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the Wellcome Trust and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. She has extensive collaborations in Asia including Thailand, Malaysia, China and India as well as collaborations with investigators throughout the US and Europe. She is a co-principal investigator for the Delaney AIDS Research Enterprise to find a Cure – a $25million NIH funded program grant of over 30 investigators working on immunological interventions to develop a cure for HIV.

She was the local co-chair of the XXth International AIDS Conference (AIDS2014) which was held in Melbourne July 2015, which attracted over 14,000 participants and was the largest health conference ever held in Australia. In 2015, she became a member of the council of the NHMRC and chairs the newly established NHMRC Health Translation Advisory Committee.

In 2014 she was named Melburnian of the Year. This is an award made each year by the City of Melbourne to an inspirational role model who has made an outstanding contribution to the city in their chosen field. This was the first time the award was made to a physician or scientist.

Sharon is married to Bob Milstein, a health lawyer. They have two adult sons, Alex and Max who are mad Essendon supporters. She is a passionate Melburnian!

Prof Lewin & Peter Wills
Prof Lewin & Peter Wills