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Australian research system ‘not ready for the next pandemic’

Covid-19 inquiry hears of need for strategic coordination rather than competitive funding calls

Australia needs to improve in several key areas to be ready for the next pandemic, a federal government inquiry has been told.

In its submission to the Covid-19 Response Inquiry, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity said that an improved focus was needed on the key areas of surveillance and data; public health testing and outbreak response; vaccines, therapeutics and clinical trials; expert advice and guidance; and research.

Research should be shifted to larger-scale programmes “in preference to competitive research [calls] that support small teams that work in isolation”, the Melbourne institute said, adding that a shortage of high-level laboratories also delayed research into the virus.

The institute, which was a key agency in early testing and control attempts and housed “the first lab outside China to grow the virus in vitro”, swung its research activities to Covid-19 in 2020.

Surveillance and communication

The inquiry is being carried out within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, overseen by an independent panel chaired by former public servant Robyn Kruk.

The Doherty institute told the inquiry that Australia needs to invest in “national integrated surveillance systems” and in maintaining “a highly skilled public health laboratory workforce with technical skills”.

It also said there should be “linkages between public health laboratories, clinicians and researchers to ensure rapid applied research for public health responses”.

Public communication improvements are another necessity, it said, including “a national network of trusted scientific and public health communication experts to guide community engagement and public messaging”.

At the outbreak of Covid-19, the response was hampered by difficulties in sharing samples across jurisdictions and a lack of “physical containment level 3” labs, it added.

The yet-to-be-opened Australian Institute for Infectious Disease could address some of these issues. Doherty is a partner in the institute, along with the University of Melbourne and the Burnet Institute.

Lost opportunity

In its submission to the inquiry, the Australian Academy of Science said that “not initiating large-scale collaborative research based on research priorities early in the pandemic was a lost opportunity”.

“Open competitive calls to fund research created competition rather than facilitating collaboration for greater impact…Australia would be better positioned to respond to future pandemics by strategic planning and establishing systems to support coordinated research in priority areas and suitable clinical trials and studies to be ready ahead of time to respond immediately,” it wrote.

That call for coordination was echoed in the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences’ submission, which told the inquiry that “pandemic research must be strategic and the best way to achieve this is by ensuring an ongoing strategic approach across Australia’s health and medical research and innovation”.

“Australia should develop an overarching national strategy to guide research priorities, which facilitates Commonwealth and cross-jurisdictional cooperation and collaboration,” it said, adding that it wants governments to “embed” research into healthcare provision.

It said the main health research funders such as the Medical Research Future Fund and the National Health and Medical Research Council were “unable to provide timely funding for projects in the context of an emergency”.

Scientific advice

Both academies highlighted communication problems during the pandemic. The Rapid Research Information Forum was set up in 2020 to advise governments and “filled a gap in formal mechanisms at the science-policy interface in Australia, providing policymakers with access to the latest evidence”, the academy of science said. The forum has continued in a new form but is still “in its infancy”.

Overall, “Australia lacks a strategic and structured independent scientific advice system”, the science academy said. “Australia’s chief scientist should have a legislated role in providing advice to government during crises.”

The academies’ submissions supported the proposed Australian Centre for Disease Control.