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Government announces NZ$36m for infectious diseases research


Unspent Covid-19 response money in New Zealand will be channelled into dedicated disease research fund

New Zealand’s government has announced the creation of a NZ$36 million fund for research into infectious diseases.

The fund will support work on Covid-19 and other diseases. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will oversee the creation of a central “platform” to coordinate the research.

The three-year fund was announced on 19 September by Ayesha Verrall, associate minister for research, science and innovation. “Lack of a dedicated infectious diseases research fund has been a longstanding gap in our domestic science capabilities,” she said. “When the pandemic hit, scientists either volunteered time to support the Covid-19 response or received ad hoc grants for small pieces of research.”

The ministry will oversee the choice of an organisation to host the platform, with multiple research partners expected to take part.

‘A step in the right direction’

Lobby group New Zealanders for Health Research welcomed the fund, with chief executive Chris Higgins saying that in the group’s most recent opinion poll, “79 per cent of respondents said it was extremely or very important to do research on finding vaccines for new infectious diseases such as Covid-19”.

“Even though this lifts dedicated 2021 government investment in health research from a paltry 0.61 per cent of healthcare costs to an only marginally better 0.67 per cent, it does at least represent a step in the right direction and will hopefully set a precedent for other areas where increased health research investment is needed,” he told Research Professional News.

“Given continuing global population growth and human encroachment on wildlife habitats, it seems inevitable that New Zealand will be exposed to further global outbreaks of infectious diseases—either variants of existing viruses or new diseases altogether—and it would be unwise to dismiss the Covid-19 pandemic as a one-in-a-hundred-year event. Even though we don’t know when the next pandemic will occur or what it will look like, we in New Zealand need to be doing as much as we can to ensure that we are as prepared as possible,” Higgins said.

Prevention, control and management

Verrall said that the fund’s focus would “be on major research questions relating to Covid-19 which are common to all infectious diseases. The first priority area is improving prevention and control, including through better understanding of disease transmission, and further vaccine research. The second is in improving our management of infectious diseases, for instance through diagnostics, surveillance and therapeutics.”

“Reducing the impact of infectious diseases on Māori and Pacific people, and promoting the development of our next generation of pandemic scientists, are key drivers of this work,” Verrall said.

The funding will come from an “unspent allocation” of the national Covid-19 response fund, she added. Income at New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes has not fallen by as much as predicted, freeing up the money.

A competitive process to choose the host organisation is expected to begin in October.