Lots of critical questions, but little funding: Scientists say Covid research needs more investment

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Scientists are concerned at the lack of funding for Covid research, with some local researchers not having “anything much left in the tank” after mostly researching on evenings and weekends.

University of Otago, Wellington, Professor of Public Health Michael Baker, said that after a world-leading response to the pandemic earlier, New Zealand was now “struggling a bit”.

“This is where we want to have a lot of research inquiry under way to get us through what will be a difficult phase,” he said.

“We have junior researchers who basically could have worked on a lot of critical questions around the response, but we can’t ask them to do it because they don’t have funded positions.

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“Very able researchers who could have been poring over a lot of critical questions about the Covid response – MIQ, border biosecurity – have not been able to do anything.”

Antibody testing at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research at Victoria University.

Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Antibody testing at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research at Victoria University.

But Research, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Megan Woods said New Zealand’s successes in limiting the spread and impact of Covid-19 compared to the rest of the world, was in no small part due to a dynamic scientific response.

As part of its immediate response to the pandemic, the Government invested $33 million through the Covid-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund (CIAF), Woods said.

The fund was set up to fund research organisations and companies to mitigate the impact or prevent spread of Covid. Its advances had a large impact on New Zealand’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to Covid-19 and contain the virus, Woods said.

“This is particularly evident in our epidemiological modelling, genomic sequencing and detection of Covid-19 in wastewater,” Woods said.

“Through CIAF we also funded solutions that included Covid-19 testing, technology development to significantly increase our ventilator capacity, technology to support maritime border management, business management solutions to manage Covid-19 and protective equipment.”

ESR testing for Covid-19 in wastewater.

ESR/Supplied

ESR testing for Covid-19 in wastewater.

The Government had also provided $10 million for domestic Covid-19 vaccine research and the establishment of the Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand to connect New Zealand’s expertise to global research efforts.

Baker said most of the Covid work done by himself and colleagues Professor Nick Wilson and Dr Amanda Kvalsvig from the University of Otago’s Department of Public Health in Wellington was largely carried out in the evenings and on weekends. For people such as himself and others “there isn’t anything much left in the tank at this stage”.

Virtually none of the Covid research his group was doing had any funding, and there was no pool of funding they could draw on to do the work, Baker said.

“We need a research strategy. You would have regular meetings of the key agencies to say, ‘what are our big research questions we want to resolve’. Then you would have a pool of funding you could deploy rapidly.”

Given the country was spending billions of dollars on its Covid response, it would make scientific and economic sense to be spending something vaguely proportionate on research and development, to refine the response and make it more effective and efficient, Baker said

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He wanted to see fast start funding, so researchers could go to work quickly on answering critical questions. “We would want to have researchers around the country poring over every aspect of it.”

It would have been good to have several groups doing modelling work, which would have allowed a more active discussion about such things as methods and parameters.

Shaun Hendy, a principal investigator at Te Pūnahi Matatini (TPM) – the Centre of Research Excellence for Complex Systems – has worked on some of the key Covid modelling in New Zealand.

The science behind the Covid response in New Zealand had been poorly funded, partly because the funding system was not set up to react in a crisis, and the fact that science funding overall was in a poor state in this country, Hendy said.

While several groups had been doing modelling, the level of funding meant only TPM could be properly supported.

Rapid antigen testing before a music festival in Serbia.

Vladimir Zivojinovic/Getty Images

Rapid antigen testing before a music festival in Serbia.

“Even then there have been extended periods where no modelling was being funded at all. For TPM this has meant that we have lost key capability at important times and some of our younger researchers have had high levels of job insecurity,” Hendy said.

Some of the problems went back to a lack of focus on infectious disease in the New Zealand science system.

University of Auckland Professor Chris Bullen, director of the National Institute for Health Innovation, said health research funding in New Zealand in general was low.

In the 2021 Budget, direct government investment in health research fell from 0.64 per cent of direct health care costs to 0.57 per cent.

He thought it should be increased to more than 2 per cent to match other OECD countries, while noting researchers always wanted to see more money spent on research.

An issue for Covid research in New Zealand was that many projects funded through the Health Research Council in 2020 had failed to recruit participants because this country’s Covid response was so effective that not enough people had been infected, Bullen said.

ROSA WOODS/STUFF

The science behind genome sequencing, which takes place at ESR in Porirua.

He noted the CIAF funding, and said another tranche of funding for research into long Covid had just been awarded to Victoria University of Wellington.

The Government had also recently announced $36m over three years for an infectious disease research platform, which was a “potentially worthwhile” investment. It would not be specifically about Covid, but would inevitably draw on lessons from the Covid experience to beef up future defences against other pandemics.

“Otherwise most of the research I am aware of that New Zealand health researchers have done on Covid has been done without government investment. My group has sought small amounts from other sources to enable this work,” Bullen said.

More research funding should be provided for Covid, Bullen said.

“I think it should specifically focus on key ‘live’ Covid questions, such as novel approaches to improving how we prevent transmission, improve contact tracing, testing and diagnosis, case treatment, isolation, and documenting impact.

“As well as such ‘rapid response’ research, we need longer-term studies of Covid’s direct and indirect health impacts on diverse populations and what works to mitigate adverse impacts.”



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