$36 million to study infectious diseases – Expert Reaction

New funding for infectious disease research – aiming to aid Aotearoa’s Covid-19 response and preparation for future pandemics – was announced at today’s 1 pm update.

The Government will invest $36 million over three years in a new platform, with a focus on Covid-19 research questions that are common across infectious diseases. Priorities include prevention, further vaccine research, surveillance and treatments, and addressing the impact of infectious diseases on Māori and Pacific communities is a key driver.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this news, and today’s Covid-19 update.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Senior Lecturer Pathology & Molecular Medicine, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of Pacific Office, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“Vaccination rates in Aotearoa New Zealand are improving, with efforts underway to increase accessibility and reduce barriers for those needing the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccination levels still need to be higher across Aotearoa New Zealand, with concentrated testing, vaccination and monitoring efforts critical for keeping Delta under control moving forward. It will be important to support our young people get vaccinated, and ensure any questions and concerns they have are addressed, and that they’re also included and involved in leading youth-targeted efforts to help others get vaccinated.

“The recently-announced $36 million investment by the Government to boost Aotearoa New Zealand’s Covid-19 response and preparedness for future pandemics and develop a new Infectious Diseases Research Platform, is welcome news.

“The areas of focus set out for prioritisation are for improved prevention and control of infectious diseases, and also for the improved management of infectious diseases. Objectives set out for this funding investment include reducing the impact of infectious diseases for Māori and Pacific peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand, in addition to promoting and developing the next generation of pandemic scientists – including Māori and Pacific researchers.

“Māori and Pacific scientists remain underrepresented at Universities and Crown Research Institutes in Aotearoa New Zealand. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted health inequities and adverse health outcomes for Māori and Pacific peoples that have persisted over time, and it was known from the outset that Pacific peoples and Māori communities were vulnerable to being disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“An equity focus will be critical as a basis for the scientific research work supported by this investment to ensure a sustained and appropriate contribution of cutting-edge science is delivered for the COVID-19 response that will achieve these set objectives.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Epidemiologist, Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“This new research platform is very welcome and has the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of New Zealanders. Our pandemic response has been world-leading, but the science underpinning it has depended to a large extent on donated time from researchers.

Speaking personally as one of the academic ‘precariat’ hopping from contract to contract, it’s only through fantastic support from my senior colleagues that I’ve been able to stay fully employed through the pandemic. In turn, I spend a large part of my working week on efforts to retain our talented early-career researchers. This is a frustrating way to work in a pandemic when we really need all hands on deck.

I fully support the objectives outlined by Minister Verrall, particularly the importance of building our infectious diseases workforce to address longstanding and unjust impacts on Māori and Pacific peoples. I’m delighted to see the focus on collaboration. When the pandemic arrived, New Zealand’s underfunded and overstretched researchers were forced to compete against one another for the limited funding available. Tying up researchers writing 10-page proposals during a public health crisis is highly inefficient.

Instead, my hope for this new platform is that the research funding will grow and sustain rich networks of scientists, communities, health services, and policymakers. We all have something to offer from our different areas of expertise and knowledge. There needs to be a long-term investment in different types of research with a strong focus on kaupapa Māori research that has contributed so much to keep communities safe from Covid-19 and from the impacts of lockdown.

I’d like to see innovative thinking about funding models with a mix of short-term and sustained funding. A great example of a rapid response was the ‘Fast Grants’ funding initiative in the US that worked extremely well in jump-starting Covid-19 research early in 2020. It was envisaged as “a research-grant system with an application form that can be completed in less than 30 minutes, a decision-making process that takes just 48 hours, and funding that arrives within a week”. A similar model could be used here when needed to answer urgent questions and support an agile response to public health emergencies.

Conflict of interest statement: Dr Kvalsvig is lead researcher of Co-Search Research Collaborative at the University of Otago Wellington (Director: Prof Michael Baker). In 2020 she participated in the Infectious Disease Research Scoping Exercise conducted by MBIE and the Ministry of Health to elicit research priorities from the infectious diseases research sector.

Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“I am very pleased to see additional funding for infectious disease research in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“The pandemic has shown that scientific evidence is critical to informing decision-making in times of crisis.  It is also needed at other times to support improved efforts to prevent epidemics as well as managing endemic infectious diseases. Such investment is highly cost-effective, particularly if it can help improve the prevention and management of pandemics.

“Positive features of this announcement are the focus on developing emerging researchers, collaborations, and improving the health of Māori and Pasifika who are disproportionately affected by infectious diseases.

“It would be useful if some of this funding was available immediately to support urgent pandemic research. There are many important questions where answers are needed now to guide New Zealand as we manage our way through this critical phase of the pandemic.  The timetable for establishing this new platform means that it may not be able to delivery research findings for another two years or more from now.  It would be useful if some of this funding could be put into a ‘fast start’ funding round that could take place now.

“It is also important that additional resources go into supporting New Zealand’s critical public health infrastructure.  There is a strong case for New Zealand developing a ‘Centres for Disease Control (CDC)’-type agency to consolidate a range of key national functions, including surveillance, outbreak investigation, and public health laboratory capabilities. Such an agency could provide the critical mass of expertise and infrastructure needed for infectious disease prevention and control in the medium to longer term.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have been involved in the consultation process MBIE used to help shape this Strategic Science Investment Fund platform. I carry out infectious diseases research and work at a university that will be interested in potentially hosting such a platform in collaboration with other institutions.”

Professor Graham Le Gros, Immunologist, Director Malaghan Institute of Medical Research; and Programme Director Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, comments:

“This is very good news and a much needed investment in the skill-sets and technologies that will be needed to protect New Zealand against the ongoing COVID19 pandemic.

“We have so much work to do to get on top of COVID-19 and to be in a position to respond to future pandemics. This coming together of national expertise in infectious diseases will secure New Zealand’s future resilience.”

Conflict of interest statement: Professor Le Gros is Programme Director of the Government-funded Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, a partnership between the Malaghan Institute, the University of Otago and Victoria University of Wellington.

Hiran Thabrew, Child psychiatrist, paediatrician and Director of the Werry Centre for Infant, Child and Adolescent Mental Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“Given the well-established links between physical and emotional health, and emerging evidence regarding the short and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope that at least some of this new funding is directed towards improving mental health research and care for all New Zealanders.”
Conflict of interest statement: “I am a mental health clinician and researcher”

Dr Matthew Parry, Senior Lecturer, Dept of Mathematics & Statistics, and Associate Dean International (Sciences), University of Otago, and New Zealand Statistical Association President, comments:

“This is a very well-thought-out research platform that, for a modest outlay, will have immediate and sustained benefits for New Zealand’s response to infectious diseases. It is money well spent. I am also delighted to see a commitment to further vaccine research.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Murat Üngör, Department of Economics, University of Otago, comments:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all too clearly the fundamental importance of funding for public health and biomedical research activities. Research outcomes will help save lives and contain healthcare costs in future pandemics.

“Investing $36 million over three years in a new platform to sustain the contribution of cutting-edge science to the response, albeit a small amount, is a starting point. Pure scientific research should be favoured, and this should be very specific. This investment should be concentrated on basic research, and target the basic research mode directly.

“According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), basic research “is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts.” People should change their perception that basic research is useless. Without fundamental basic research, there will be no good applied research.

“Research and development activities create new knowledge, and contribute to other discoveries and developments. A recent important research article by Ufuk Akcigit, Douglas Hanley, and Nicolas Serrano-Velarde, published in the Review of Economic Studies in 2021, finds evidence that policies geared towards public basic research, and its interaction with the private sector, are significantly welfare-improving.

“When research labs produce more basic knowledge, firms will build on this and produce more impactful applied innovations.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Philip Hill, McAuley Professor of International Health, University of Otago, comments:

“I think it is strange that this fund is restricted to research that is completely New Zealand-based. Ironically, one thing that should be obvious from Covid-19 is that we cannot restrict our involvement to New Zealand for something that is global.

“Infectious diseases are globally interconnected, so an infectious diseases research fund to build capacity to respond to future global pandemics should have a globally-connected focus. New Zealand’s infectious diseases researchers should be leading globally-connected infectious diseases research.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Arindam Basu, Associate Professor, Epidemiology and Environmental Health, University of Canterbury, comments:

“This is an excellent and welcome move, and clearly, additional infectious disease research funding focused on COVID-19 will be immensely beneficial to everyone. Besides, this will have follow-on effects on other infectious disease management, including research on the nexus between infectious / non-infectious diseases and emergent areas (genomics, machine learning and other areas).
“That said, it remains to be seen the exact focus of the funding and specific objectives. Overall, this is a very encouraging announcement.”
No conflict of interest.