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Otago researchers contribute to COVID-19 fight

Friday 17 April 2020 7:33pm

HRC-recipients-April-2020-image
Three Otago researchers (clockwise from left) Lesley Gray, Associate Professor Jo-Ann Stanton and Professor Michael Baker have recieved funding for their COVID-19 related projects.

Three University of Otago researchers have received a share of $3.8 million in new Government funding for research projects directly related to COVID-19.

Professor Michael Baker and Senior Lecturer Lesley Gray both from the University of Otago, Wellington, receive $500,000 and $179,904 respectively for their projects while Associate Professor Jo-Ann Stanton from the Department of Anatomy receives $235,746.

The funding has been made available through a joint Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) and Ministry of Health initiative to help combat the current coronavirus outbreak and prepare New Zealand for future pandemics.

"Most research on health disasters is done after the event. This was an exceptionally fast funding round and means that the research can be conducted while the pandemic is happening and used to inform the response."

Professor Baker, a Professor in the Department of Public Health and public health medicine specialist, praises the quick response to make funding readily available for COVID-19 related research.

“Most research on health disasters is done after the event. This was an exceptionally fast funding round and means that the research can be conducted while the pandemic is happening and used to inform the response.”

The HRC’s chief executive, Professor Sunny Collings, former Dean of the University of Otago, Wellington, says the funded studies will contribute to global research efforts to manage COVID-19 while meeting evidence gaps specific to New Zealand, with careful consideration to health equity for Māori and Pacific groups.

“This research has the potential to contribute answers to questions the world is grappling with, especially those concerning treatment options for COVID-19,” she says.

Three funded clinical trials, for example, will test the role of existing medications that have gained a high profile for their potential use in this crisis.

The Otago projects are varied with Professor Baker receiving one of the largest shares of the funding available for his project which aims to guide an effective and equitable pandemic response and to learn as much as possible so New Zealand is better prepared for the next major public health emergency – whatever that might be.

Professor Baker says there is huge international interest in New Zealand’s response to the pandemic.

“There is huge international interest in what New Zealand is doing and the benefits and costs of different responses to the pandemic. Unfortunately, the world is becoming a more dangerous place for emerging infections and we need to learn as much as possible about how island nations can protect themselves from pandemic threats.”

Ms Gray, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Primary Healthcare and General Practice, will investigate New Zealanders’ self-isolating practices through her research project.

She says while self-isolation and quarantine have become a key part of New Zealand’s border controls and containment strategy for COVID-19, there is little information available on public understanding and adherence to the measures.

"They represent the tip of the spear in our national war against COVID, but also the tip of the iceberg in terms of the dozens of other University of Otago research teams who have quickly pivoted to focus their efforts towards short, medium and long-term responses to the issues this disease has brought."

“There are likely to be ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities in the ability of people to follow these guidelines.”

Ms Gray says the research will provide a comprehensive picture of the operation of isolation measures in New Zealand, including a population-based sample of people registered with Healthline for self-isolation to assess knowledge, attitudes and practices regarding isolation measures.

Associate Professor Stanton, a molecular biologist, aims to develop an effective point-of-care test for the infectious disease through her research project.

She will work collaboratively with a multidisciplinary team of both academic and commercial experts, together with rural Māori communities and primary healthcare providers to develop a test to screen patient samples for COVID-19 at the point-of-care, whether that be at a doctor’s clinic or the airport.

University of Otago Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Professor Richard Blaikie says news of the Otago researchers securing the new funding for COVID-19 related research is an outstanding result.

“The skills and capabilities from these groups has already been demonstrated to be vital to the national and global fight against this deadly disease,” he says.

“They represent the tip of the spear in our national war against COVID, but also the tip of the iceberg in terms of the dozens of other University of Otago research teams who have quickly pivoted to focus their efforts towards short, medium and long-term responses to the issues this disease has brought.”

You can read more detail about our researchers’ projects here.

2020 COVID-19 New Zealand Rapid Response Research:

(Request for Proposals funded by the Ministry of Health and Health Research Council)

Ms Lesley Gray, University of Otago
Improving effectiveness and equity in the operation of COVID-19 ‘self-isolation’
$179,904

Dr Colin McArthur, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand
Clinical trial of COVID-19 treatments for the critically ill
$169,571

Dr Marama Muru-Lanning, The University of Auckland
Harirū, hongi and hau in the time of COVID-19
$101,922

Professor Ilan Noy, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Economic risks from COVID-19 in Pacific Island Countries
$51,436

Dr Olin Silander, Massey University
Rapid diagnosis and genome sequencing to follow CoV-2019 outbreak

$165,471

Associate Professor Jo-Ann Stanton, University of Otago
An effective point-of-care screening pathway for COVID-19
$235,746

2020 COVID-19 and Emerging Infectious Diseases Grant

(Researcher-initiated proposals funded solely by the Health Research Council)

Professor Michael Baker, University of Otago
COVID-19 Pandemic in Aotearoa NZ: Impact, inequalities & improving our response
$500,000

Professor Richard Beasley, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand
Clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine prophylaxis in frontline healthcare workers
$429,500

Dr Liangni Liu, Massey University
Social response to COVID-19 in New Zealand: Obligations and stigmatisation
$350,325

Mr John Mackay, Dnature Diagnostics & Research
Distinguishing COVID-19 from influenza with rapid 15-minute diagnostics
$196,570

Dr Susan Morpeth, Middlemore Clinical Trials
Australasian COVID-19 Trial (ASCOT)
$766,113

Professor Anthony Phillips, The University of Auckland
Attenuating lung injury during prolonged ventilation for COVID-19
$161,977

Professor Colin Simpson, Research Trust of Victoria University of Wellington
Predict and Prevent COVID-19: a data driven innovation project
$533,224