By Associate Professor Rebecca Grainger
On writing editorials that end a year, one generally reﬂects on the events that have passed.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is a very significant event in our collective history, both in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally. Although public health experts have been warning for years that a globally significant pandemic was a very real threat, we probably had a collective “not us, not here” response. Although New Zealand has fared well with controlling the number of cases of COVID-19 and subsequently deaths and morbidity, the economic, social and personal impacts are enormous and will be ongoing. We should all acknowledge that good science and good science communication have been the backbone of New Zealand’s success in controlling COVID-19.
Science is fundamentally about asking questions and figuring out appropriate ways to find the answer. For the most part, science is incremental; big breakthroughs are few and far between and most findings only subtly shift understandings. Often, more new questions are raised than were answered. At the start of the pandemic we extrapolated knowledge about infection transmission and biological plausibility of treatments from other respiratory viruses to the SARS CoV-2 virus, that cause COVID-19. This was useful for some aspects such as mask wearing and transmission but less successful, even damaging, for other aspects. One such example was the hype around use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, resulting from promotion of preliminary studies which were very poor quality. This caused significant harm to people with rheumatic disease who were suddenly unable to access their long-term medication. The scientific community internationally has risen to the challenge by vocally challenging promotion of poor science and pivoting to undertake high quality COVID-19-related research. This research covers the breadth of science from basic virology to public health and everything in between. There has been an unprecedented level of collaboration, activity and publishing on COVID-19 in 2020. All these scientists have years of training behind them starting at universities decades ago. We are fortunate that these people have invested this time in developing skills, knowledge, and the networks and teams to undertake this vital research.
We should also celebrate local science leaders who are contributing on a national and international level. Never would I have thought a Wellington academic in public health would become a household name but Professor Micheal Baker has achieved just that. Professor Baker, Professor Tony Blakley, and his colleagues at University of Otago Wellington have made enormous contributions to the science-based approach of government policy. Dr Ayesha Verrall brought her scientific skills in infectious disease and epidemiology to bear providing essential feedback to firm up and improve the contact tracing approaches that control new community infections. The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research (MIMR) is now focusing on COVID-19 vaccine research in collaboration* with Victoria University of Wellington in the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo. Research For Life has had a long history of supporting scientists, particularly student research, at the MIMR so it is with particular pride that we can recognise the contribution of the team at MIMR under the leadership of Professor Graham le Gros. It has never been more important to support the Wellington scientific research community in their research, and especially in the role of developing the scientists of the future.
While the scientific community has risen to address the big questions of COVID-19, there have also been challenges. Community alert levels have made laboratory and field work more challenging, and probably more lonely when essential work continued under Level 4 with non-essential colleagues at home. While alert levels in Wellington have remained below Level 3, scientists are planning for ways that science can continue if that changes. Finally, there are now no practical opportunities to engage in person with international collaborators. We are all making the best of online or virtual conferences to disseminate important findings and exchange ideas. Overall, this is effective if you can remain alert in the middle of the night when “zooming” in to international meetings!
As a member and now Chair of the Research Advisory Committee I have had the pleasure of reading many grant reports from our scientists in Wellington. These are our best and brightest, who are finding creative and cutting-edge ways of addressing important health problems from right here in Wellington. Research For Life is committed to continuing to support the development of science in Wellington by supporting their research, and particularly that of our younger and emerging talent. We never know when we will need them.
Read the full 2020 Research Review here.