Coronavirus research must focus on more than just a vaccine


In this acute phase of the emerging epidemic, governments scrambling to respond are confronting huge knowledge gaps. Our new emergency research funding may not make a meaningful dent in the work needed to develop a vaccine, but it could ensure that we fill those knowledge gaps and achieve other short- and medium-term goals in the fight against this novel coronavirus.

We have formidable national research infrastructure in Australia that can be used to understand and control coronavirus. Every researcher will have their own special interests, but there are urgent needs on which all of them agree. We must design and evaluate new types of diagnostic tests that can be rolled out in a variety of settings to detect illness quickly and track epidemic progress.

Scientists work at the CSIRO Clayton manufacturing facility, which is attempting to produce a coronavirus vaccine. Credit:Scott McNaughton

We need to figure out how to treat people who develop life-threatening complications, most likely to be pneumonia, and to trial novel therapies in real time.

And we need to know how best to prevent transmission, particularly in healthcare settings, so that we can keep the frontline workforce as safe as possible and minimise spread to vulnerable populations. At the same time, we need research to reduce potential harm that may arise through discrimination and stigma.

Given potentially huge economic losses from the coronavirus, the investment in urgent research of $2 million, or less than 10 cents per Australian, seems on the low side. Meanwhile, the British government has put £20 million ($39 million) on the table for urgent research. Canada has allocated C$6.5 million ($7.4 million) and the United States is reassigning priorities within its multibillion-dollar National Institutes of Health.

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By any standard, Australia punches well above its weight in medical science, and we have been particularly prominent in virology, the study of how viruses cause disease and what we need to do to control them. Researchers in our universities, institutes, hospitals and state laboratories have built on the legacy of pioneering virologists including Frank Macfarlane Burnet, who won the Nobel Prize in 1960, and Frank Fenner, who led the global campaign that declared the eradication of smallpox in 1980.

The Medical Research Future Fund was set up just five years ago to complement traditional funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, which has been the mainstay of Australian medical research. The Future Fund has a smaller (but quickly growing) war chest and it allocates funding according to strategic priorities, under the control of the federal Health Minister.

It has a clear advantage over the NHMRC in its capacity to respond quickly to health threats at short notice, with targeted lines of support, as it has done this week for coronavirus.

While it is appealing to see money from the Future Fund go towards a preventive vaccine, there are other essential outcomes that a focused, fast-tracked investment in research is more likely to achieve. If the money cannot come from the fund, it should be urgently found elsewhere. Quick action to acquire knowledge will save lives.

John Kaldor is a professor of epidemiology at the Kirby Institute, UNSW Sydney.

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