In an impassioned plea aimed at ensuring Australia avoids the emergence of the “next Disease X pandemic”, the high-profile Australasian Virology Society has called for an end to the “panic and neglect cycle of funding” that it says has characterised the nation’s past response to health crises.
It has also called for a boost in medical research to three per cent of health expenditure, adding that what is “often termed discovery research” is the “engine of innovation without which our clinicians and public health researchers would not have the diagnostic, vaccine and antiviral tools needed to combat infectious diseases.”
Noting the widespread impact of the COVID-19 pandemic the Society said the next pandemic may be worse and may have more efficient human-to-human spread.
“While predicting the timing of the next pandemic is impossible, there is no aspect to its response, including surveillance, detection, diagnosis, treatment, epidemiology, antivirals and vaccines, that would not be improved by investing in basic research,” according to the signatories of the statement of 12 June 2020.
They warned, “We do not know what virus will cause the next pandemic, with the only certainty being its inevitability.”
There is also a strong financial argument, with a 2018 report by the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes finding that for every $1 invested in medical research, $3.90 is returned to the broader economy in the form of both community health benefits and direct returns from commercialisation.
“In a pandemic response this multiplier may be dramatically higher,” the Society added.
“Yet development of effective prophylactics and treatments takes years, requiring appropriate biocontainment facilities across the country, sustained funding and a trained workforce.
“Between 2012 and 2017 the NHMRC full-time workforce decreased by 20%, reducing our capability to respond to COVID-19. This has resulted in the failure to keep biocontainment facilities in service at several academic institutions, meaning that some suitably trained virologists cannot even begin research with a new virus.
“While new funds targeting COVID-19 and CSIRO-ACDP labs in Geelong are welcome, in future there must be continued expansion and development of Australia’s basic research capability in all disciplines, but especially infection and immunity.”
The Australasian Virology Society represents over 700 members who include prominent researchers, clinicians and scientists working with viral infectious diseases and the means for their management and prevention.