27 October 2020

Over the past 20 years, NHMRC has invested more than $23 million in 37 projects on pandemic preparedness.

Some projects looked to the lessons of history:

  • applying modern mathematics, epidemiology and modelling to what we know about the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people, including about 15,000 Australians3
  • analysing 20 years of notification data on infectious diseases to improve future detection of outbreaks
  • reviewing the impact and cost-effectiveness of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) control measures in 15 countries
  • learning from the 2014 Ebola epidemic, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and other emerging diseases.

Some projects tackled vector-borne diseases such as dengue and Zika virus, while others investigated how society would need to respond to a pandemic:

  • assessing how social distancing, school closures, quarantine and other measures would affect the spread of influenza • refining business planning and continuity—experience with severe acute respiratory
  • syndrome (SARS) showed that health officials were overwhelmed with businesses seeking information on how they could operate safely. Researchers worked with owners to discover what would enable them to undertake their own planning.
  • evaluating fever screening at airports
  • planning the role and likely responses of paramedics and other emergency workers in a mass-outbreak scenario.

When a novel H1N1 influenza spread around the world in 2009, NHMRC initiated a suite of rapid response projects, including research on early warning systems, mapping, sharing data, and managing the disease in prisons.

The search also started for novel leaps forward that might transform our response to future pandemics:

  • investigating the performance of anti-influenza drugs and drug resistance
  • applying molecular clamp technology to generate candidate vaccines for Ebola, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), Nipah virus and Lassa fever
  • using genomics to detect outbreaks and track transmission of diseases, including whooping cough and foodborne infections.

The leaders of these projects include people who have become household names in recent months, such as Edward Holmes, Paul Kelly, Sharon Lewin, Raina MacIntyre and Paul Young. 

3 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17136138/