Australia and NZ’s top researchers answer governments’ COVID-19 questions

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday April 30, 2020

Adobe

Leading scientists, researchers and innovators from across Australia and New Zealand have united to provide governments with the latest evidence to assist with the coronavirus pandemic.

Chaired by Australia’s chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel, the Rapid Research Information Forum participants — including the CSIRO and NZ’s chief science advisor Professor Juliet Gerrard — have been collaborating to quickly answer key questions about COVID-19 as they emerge.

The research aims to support the work of key decision makers, including chief medical officer Brendan Murphy, and the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission.

The RRIF recently published three reports in response to questions asked by health minister Greg Hunt. Key findings from the reports include:

Report one — What is the impact of winter on the spread of COVID-19?

  • Research suggests there will be some influence of winter on spread and severity of the virus.
  • Lower humidity and air temperature can increase the virus’ infectivity.
  • Physical distancing supported by effective public policy measures will have a greater impact on managing the spread of the virus than seasonal climate.
  • The concurrence of COVID-19 with other viruses during winter will likely exacerbate demands on health services, especially for vulnerable people and communities.
  • The onset of winter may further exacerbate the psychological effects of COVID-19, especially if quarantining measures are extended.

Report two — Is reinfection with SARS-CoV-2 possible?

  • Anecdotal reports of patients who have recovered from COVID-19 becoming reinfected may be due to testing problems. While we cannot say for certain that reinfection is not possible, the evidence for reinfection is not compelling.
  • Based on the changes detected in the blood cells and antibodies seen in most recovered patients, it would be reasonable to assume that individuals would be protected from reinfection with the same strain, at least in the short to medium term. However, no direct evidence for immunity in patients currently exists.
  • Population-level studies would be needed to determine whether reinfection can occur in people who have developed antibodies to the virus.
  • A decline in immunity or mutations in the virus could result in a future scenario in which reinfection is possible.

Report three — What is the feasibility of monitoring wastewater for early detection and monitoring of COVID-19 in the population?

  • Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) techniques are used in routine surveillance for human pathogens and have provided valuable public health data. Developing similar WBE techniques for detection of the virus is an active area of research and rapid improvements can be expected.
  • Further understanding of the virus’ infection biology and standardisation of WBE methods, along with improvements in their sensitivity and specificity, will enhance use of WBE tools to inform public health authorities of the prevalence of COVID-19 and management of its spread.
  • Given the resolution of WBE techniques can facilitate the identification of communities in a given geographic location, there are concerns of stigmatisation of communities resulting from WBE. Careful thought must be given to research design and public release of data.

Australian Academy of Science president Professor John Shine said it was “absolutely appropriate” that the expertise of Australia and New Zealand’s science, research, and innovation sectors be utilised to assist the Australian government during this critical time.

“The RRIF demonstrates the strength of evidence-informed decision making and the critical value of research and innovation in driving societal and economic progress,” he said.

The next questions to be answered by the group were posed by industry, science and technology minister Karen Andrews, education minister Dan Tehan, and Hunt.

RRIF participant organisations include:

  • Australia’s Chief Scientist
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences
  • Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering
  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia
  • Australian Academy of the Humanities
  • Royal Society Te Apārangi (New Zealand)
  • Australian Council of Learned Academies
  • State and Territory Chief Scientists
  • Chief Science Advisor to the Government of New Zealand
  • Scientific expert members of the National Science and Technology Council
  • CSIRO
  • Universities Australia
  • Science & Technology Australia

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