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.