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Living in the new ‘normal’

13 December 2021

With COVID-19 here to stay, how is philanthropy helping us to live in the current and post-pandemic world?

Lockdowns, economic crises, vaccines, ‘the new normal’ – if the events of the last 20 months have shown us anything, it’s that COVID-19 is not planning on leaving soon. However, amongst the fear and unknown, the pandemic has also generated an extraordinary response.

University of Sydney experts have been at the forefront of COVID-19 research, from understanding its genetic origins to assisting recovery efforts and public health.

Internationally renowned infectious diseases expert and Co-Director of the Sydney Institute for Infectious Diseases, Professor Tania Sorrell AM, has been one of the many University expert voices during this time.

“Our academics and researchers have made important contributions across a range of areas, whether it be public policy advice guided by interdisciplinary modelling of the impacts of public health measures and vaccination on community protection, or the minutiae of the effect that COVID-19 has on cardiovascular, lung, brain, kidney function and mental health,” she says.

The University plays a crucial role by engaging with policy makers, public health units and other professional colleagues, and contributing to and analysing emerging data on COVID-19 to help guide the discourse and support public policy in open and honest ways.
Professor Tania Sorrell AM

A generous gift from the Snow Medical Research Foundation to a BEAT COVID-19 research consortium, led by the Universities of Sydney, Melbourne and other partners, is supporting the slow road to recovery. This gift came at a critical point – a month after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

This helped research teams to react quickly and initiate programs that have now expanded nationally and internationally, and which are important in informing Australia’s immediate public health response to COVID-19, and further building our future pandemic response capability.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on Australia and the world – this is the biggest thing to hit the globe since 1945 and it will have a lasting impact for years to come,” said Snow Medical Founder, Terry Snow.

“These measures are aimed at getting Australians back to work safely, making treatment more effective and efficient and getting our economy working again.”

“This consortium is particularly notable because of its national reach and collaborative networks,” Snow continued.

It draws on research expertise from over 15 universities and medical research institutes, their affiliated public hospitals, state health departments, public health authorities, pathology services, and the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, to provide a truly national picture and coordinated approach to beating COVID-19.
Terry Snow

Dr Eunok Lee: As part of Professor Tony Cunningham and Professor Sarah Palmer's research team at Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR), Dr Eunok Lee is a valued contributor to BEAT COVID-19. 

Having completed her PhD in December 2020, Dr Lee supported the whole team to immediately pivot from HIV to COVID-19 research. Importantly, she has done some key work measuring long term immunity and vaccine effectiveness.

The team has identified fragments of COVID proteins that can be used to better track immunity and COVID vaccine effectiveness. The results, published in the Journal of Virology, are significant because they identify the fragments of COVID-19 proteins that rarely mutate. As such, they are good candidates for global tests to measure long term immunity following infection or vaccination.

It also means that they could be particularly useful in boosters for at-risk groups and to protect against new variants able to evade current vaccines.

As an early career researcher, I am especially grateful to Snow Medical for helping me undertake cutting-edge research and further establish my credentials in our field.
Dr Eunok Lee

“In particular, these funds allow me to continue my work and focus on developing a new assay to evaluate the level and duration of T-cell response within COVID-19 patients post-recovery. This study will help answer an important but under-studied question: how long does infection-induced immunity to SARS-CoV-2 last in the aging, a population at high risk of succumbing to this infectious disease?”

Dr John-Sebastian Eden : Funding from Snow Medical has enabled Early Career Researcher Dr John-Sebastian Eden, to push the boundaries of traditional medical science and pioneer novel technology based on blue-sky thinking.

Dr Eden’s work focuses on genomic RNA sequencing of human respiratory samples which contain many “resident” bacteria and other microbes (the microbiome), as well as infecting viruses that can make people sick (the pathogens). The approach of meta-genomics detects all genetic material in a given sample and hence all microbes and human genes present.

Not only can it detect multiple causes of infection in a single sample but it also allows the discovery of new infectious pathogens, for example COVID-19. The long-term goal is to bring RNA‑based meta-genomic sequencing technology into day-to-day lab diagnostics.

“Genomic sequencing gives a much more ‘complete picture’ so health professionals can decide the correct treatment pathway. For example, viral respiratory diseases are often treated with antibiotics to manage secondary bacterial infections that arise,” says Eden.

“Genomic sequencing tests have the ability to detect antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the body; therefore, the treatment can be tailored very precisely for that patient.
Dr John-Sebastian Eden

Funding from Snow Medical was integral to developing COVID-19 genome sequencing, which directly informs the NSW public health response.

“While the initial method for genome sequencing worked well, there was much opportunity for improvement, for example, accelerating the speed of the tests and their sensitivity so they can detect even the mildest of COVID-19 cases. As a result of this work, the sequencing now takes less than 24 hours compared to the several weeks it took previously,” he says.

Dr Eden is working on optimising this work. Over the next few months, he’ll pilot test his novel sequencing techniques at Westmead Hospital with a view to a national rollout. This is the first step toward introducing the use of metagenomics as a reliable and accredited test.

“Traditionally, attitudes towards genomic sequencing within the medical community have been mixed, with some questioning why it’s done. This work is proving its importance in diagnosis and treatment of diseases and demonstrating its validity in the future of medical research,” says Eden.

“It’s incredible for Early Career Researchers like me to receive these funding opportunities to make a mark in my field. I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Meet the other researchers who are part of the ‘BEAT COVID-19’ consortium

Professor Kristine Macartney is leading three serosurveys to estimate population immunity. They have been important in tracking SARS-CoV-2 spread in key groups including schoolaged children, pregnant women, healthcare workers and the elderly, and inform the government health response.

Professor Tom Snelling is focusing on clinical trials and disease outcomes for better management of infected patients. Having a template to build ‘adaptive trials’ avoids starting from scratch amid future pandemics. He is also investigating the optimal timing and spacing of COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Professor Stuart Grieve is developing the C19 iBank. This national resource will contain detailed lung CT imaging data and an automated means of scoring the damage caused by COVID-19 to the lungs.

Associate Professor Ben Tang is developing and validating tools to improve patient triage in a pandemic, working with 48 Australian and international collaborators. They aim to develop a blood test to predict which patients may acquire life-threatening secondary infections, demanding urgent medical treatment.

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