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Shaping the COVID recovery

On the front lines of the pandemic
From developing vaccines to providing expert advice to government, we’ve been at the forefront of shaping the global response to, and recovery from, COVID-19.

  • First to map the genetic information on the virus 
  • Variant-proof vaccine in development with pharmaceutical companies
  • Experts advised WHO, ATAGI, NSW Chief Medical Officer, in areas such as how to maximise vaccine uptake 
  • Students took on roles in telehealth, emergency wards, testing clinics and in contract tracing, as well as in vaccination hubs on campus.

With over 600 million cases, and 6 million deaths worldwide so far, and with more than USD$2 trillion wiped off the global economy in 2020 alone, COVID-19, the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, has defined a generation. It has also marked several paradigm shifts; a work-from-home revolution, unprecedented government stimulus and a renewed trust in academic experts. 

Since the pandemic struck, there has been unprecedented demand for our expertise. Governments, industry, and the communities we serve have been hungry for a better understanding of COVID-19, as well as seeking innovative ways forward.

Our students and alumni have also been on the COVID-19 front line in hospitals and vaccination centres, and designing and producing emergency personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. 

"During the pandemic, the speedy and highly collaborative work of deep disciplinary experts, from across the Australian university sector, absolutely shone,” Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Mark Scott AO says. 

Vaccine development and efficacy

In January 2020, virologist Professor Eddie Holmes, with colleagues in Wuhan, in China, posted the first genetic information on the virus that causes COVID-19, which enabled scientists and vaccine manufacturers across the world to begin analysis on understanding the virus.  

Professor Holmes would later be named as NSW Scientist of the Year for his pioneering work.  

Fast forward to 2021 and scientists achieved the impossible by condensing the usual 10-year vaccine development process into less than 12 months, with Sydney researchers playing a critical role. 

With the vaccine rollout in full force around the world, Professor Jamie Triccas was part of the Australian research team predicting that protection from COVID vaccines would wane over time (losing half of their antibodies approximately every 100 days), which reinforced the importance of booster shots. 

Professor Triccas and his team are working on new vaccine designs – repurposing an existing tuberculosis vaccine to see if it can be used in a new way against COVID-19. He is also leading efforts to develop a 'variant-proof' vaccine with industry, while Associate Professor Nicholas Wood is part of a team investigating a COVID-19 gene-based vaccine

A trusted voice to inform policy

Vaccines expert Professor Julie Leask standing in the University quadrangle

In March 2020, as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was “deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity” of the outbreak, the University of Sydney mobilised rapidly to protect the nation and the world. Our experts became highly valued advisors to policy makers. 

Professor Julie Leask, as chair of the WHO Working Group on the behavioural and social drivers of vaccination, influenced the development of global strategies. She also co-wrote the WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine safety communication plan, which is helping to shape how countries maximise uptake of the vaccine. Meanwhile, in Australia, she clocked up more than 400 COVID-19-related media interviews, becoming a trusted voice for the Australian public. 

Professors Cheryl Jones and Tom Snelling provided expert advice to the Federal government on immunisation, serving on the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), while Professor Tania Sorrell advised the NSW Chief Medical Officer directly, and Professors Maree Teesson and Ian Hickie led national conversations on the impact of localised lockdowns and isolation on mental health. 

Professor Kristine Macartney and colleagues studied transmission rates in NSW schools and childcare centres, which informed return-to-school policies in October 2021, while modelling led by Professor Mikhail Prokopenko in July 2021 found the level of social distancing in Sydney to be inadequate. In the days following the release of this modelling, NSW tightened its restrictions.

Relieving the health system

Thousands of staff and students from our Faculty of Medicine and Health were involved in the response to COVID-19, taking pressure off the NSW Health system. 

They took on roles in telehealth, assisting with the explosion of consultations conducted across Sydney Local Health District, provided relief in overloaded emergency wards, and worked at testing clinics and vaccination hubs.  

They assisted contact tracing efforts, door-knocked in rural communities so that people in the most vulnerable communities could get vaccinated and trained pharmacists to administer vaccinations. They also mobilised a vaccine training program for NSW Health and served in vaccination clinics set up on the University’s Camperdown campus, at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and beyond. 

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of our alumni who work in health care continue to work on the COVID-19 front lines, from Alice Springs to Vancouver.  

“Each and every person stood up to the challenge, worked together and just kept going with a single-minded mission,” says Professor Robyn Ward, Executive Dean and Pro Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Medicine and Health. She says she couldn’t be prouder of the way the University’s healthcare community helped fellow Australians and the global community, in a time of deep need.  

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