Understanding the Impact: COVID-19

The effects on the most vulnerable

As the COVID-19 health crisis unfolds in unpredictable ways, there is an urgency to know more and try to keep ahead of the virus and its impact.

In the usual timetable of medical research funding applications, the process, from conceiving the idea to starting the project can take more than 12 months. But now, as the COVID-19 health crisis unfolds in unpredictable ways, there is an urgency to know more and try to keep ahead of the virus and its impact.  

Dr James McMahon, Head of the Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Unit and Infectious Diseases Physician at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, and his team are about to embark on a funded COVID-19 research project that has taken less than four weeks to go from concept to approval.  

The grant comes from the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation and the project details with one of the Foundation’s key funding planks – the vulnerable in the local community. Dr McMahon’s research team will attempt to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable and unwell groups in the community. 

“The usual way of applying for research grants is hugely long,’’ Dr McMahon explains. “And that length of time is impractical in this setting of the COVID pandemic.’’ 

“The ability for philanthropy to respond quickly is critical to getting this work done.’’ 

The process started with a desire at Lord Mayor’s to identify an appropriate COVID-19 project that investigated vulnerable people who had caught the virus. 

Foundation CEO Catherine Brown said it had sought advice about the most useful role it could play in supporting the most vulnerable groups during the COVID -19 pandemic. “We place a lens of supporting the most vulnerable in our community over most of our work,’’ she says.  

The Foundation was referred to Professor Allen Cheng's team at the Alfred Hospital and their research director, Dr James McMahon, provided the Foundation with some options to consider.  

“We were attracted to the opportunity to quickly build a COVID-19 lens onto existing studies,’’ Catherine says. “The grant recommendation was fast-tracked to the Board due to the urgent need to commence the research. The ability for philanthropy to move quickly in crisis situations and provide early catalytic funding is critical at these times.’’ 

Although there is still rigour and ethical requirements being met, there is not what Dr McMahon refers to as the “hundreds of hours’’ of paperwork that is often required with grant applications. “It’s probably taken about three and a half weeks from the start to getting it underway. It’s unbelievably rapid,’’ Dr McMahon says. “And if we didn’t have the funding, we just couldn’t get this project started so quickly.’’ 

The project itself will primarily focus on trying to work out why some people who are vulnerable – either with pre-existing medical conditions or from particular environments, such as nursing homes –have bad outcomes with COVID-19. Or in Dr McMahon’s words, why their “immune system reacts in a way so they end up extremely unwell or die.’’ 

This is where the urgent funding process comes to the fore: it enables Dr McMahon’s research team to be able to survey those who have contracted COVID-19 and are already in hospital. They can be surveyed at regular intervals in a clinical setting to monitor how their immune system is responding and what the virus is doing at the same time. 

“The overall impact of the research is to try and work out what therapies we could use to treat he infection and the immune response to the infection, and importantly, an in-depth understanding of what’s actually going on in the body,’’ Dr McMahon says. 

“There’ll be clues to understand how the patients are responding. As researchers we will be searching for the answers as to why this infection common threads, and then try to target what was we find to combat it,’’ he says. “We do know that this virus is going to be a problem for a long time.’’ 

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