Why collaboration is essential if we are to successfully tackle COVID-19.

By: Professor Brendan Crabb AC   |   Director and CEO of the Burnet Institute

COVID-19, represents an unprecedented health and economic challenge to our community in Australia, and our neighbours around the world.

The best information to date indicates that fatality rates are significantly higher than that of seasonal flu/influenza, and it is having a disproportionate impact on older people, and those with pre-existing medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease or diabetes. COVID-19 is caused by a new virus, meaning there is no immunity in the population, and so even though most younger people will experience only mild symptoms, everyone is susceptible to being infected, and infecting other people in turn.

The economic and social impact is only just being felt, with a recession now likely, asset prices deflating, travel and work disruption, and real-world potential for casual contractors, low-income and other vulnerable communities to be disproportionately impacted.

An urgent, collaborative response is needed if we are to successfully tackle COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2. It will require the collective effort of research, government, health, business, and philanthropy to prepare and manage an effective response. It will require multisectoral, cross-border and cross-discipline collaborations.  Australia can play a global role, as well as leading and supporting our Asia-pacific neighbours.

Research will go hand in hand with our front-line health response, and one cannot be effective without the other. The WHO has presented a research roadmap to identify gaps and focus research. Vaccines, rapid point-of-care diagnostics, anti-virals, public health and epidemiology, and open sharing of data and materials are critical parts of that road map.

For over 30 years, Burnet Institute has been at the forefront of infectious disease research and public health. Our infectious disease, diagnostics and public health teams are part of a number of state, national and global infectious disease emergency collaborations and networks, and as part of Burnet’s Health Security Program, have been monitoring and preparing for an event like this. 

Our own response has been to look at the skills, knowledge, expertise and capacity that make us unique and pivot these towards supporting the global research and public health effort, directly and in partnership. 

A few weeks ago, we activated the first phase of our response.

This has included our Global Health Diagnostics Lab, led by Associate Professor David Anderson, which is developing a test to help identify people who have been infected. This will enable people to return to work post-infection, which will be critical for key front-line services, in particular the health sector, who are disproportionately exposed to infection.

Burnet-owned medical diagnostics R&D company, Nanjing BioPoint Diagnostics Technology, is gearing up to support proof of concept and validation studies for rapid point-of-care diagnostics for COVID-19, to be developed by Burnet Institute. 

Additionally, Burnet is home to speciality laboratory services organisation 360biolabs (established as a joint venture by Burnet and Innoviron Ltd), which is Australia’s first commercially focused ISO accredited laboratory to offer virology and immunology testing for COVID-19 vaccine development, including preparation of assays to support COVID-19 vaccine development and enable laboratory testing of new antivirals and biologics, under GMP conditions, required by regulatory authorities.  

A consortium co-lead by Doherty Institute and Burnet Institute has received initial funding from the Victorian state government to lead a COVID-19 Research Program aiming to accelerate the development of new therapeutics, diagnostics, clinical research and a collaborative public health response to COVID-19.  The initiative is recognition of the unique role Burnet can play in the response to this virus, and it provides the consortium with a strong foundation on which to begin work.

The crisis is constantly evolving. We are at the start of a long journey and, in many instances, into uncharted territories. Our response needs to be flexible and capable of evolving. It is critical that we be ready and able to adapt by looking at how we can pivot our resources to support collaborations to fight COVID-19 directly, but also the organisations and communities who were already vulnerable, and even more so now.

Mar. 17, 2020

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