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15 December 2020

FROM the onset of the global pandemic in Australia, the infectious diseases modelling team at JCU’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, has been at the forefront of informing policymakers on ways to minimise damage and contain COVID-19.

The researchers led by the Institute’s Professor Emma McBryde, demonstrated the crucial value of early international border closures for pandemic control, and developed a system for considering the wide-ranging impacts.

They also correctly anticipated staff presenting to workplaces as a key problem in controlling the epidemic in Australia, and alerted jurisdictions to the need to compensate casual workers for sick leave.

Their research on the low impact of reopening schools was also effective in supporting a shift in policy, away from prolonged school closures.

Their invaluable work has won them the 2020 Research Excellence Award from James Cook University for the impact of their COVID-19 research on informing government policy throughout the pandemic.

Professor McBryde’s team was able to mobilise fast, early in the year, producing a Global Pandemic Map from a modelling tool initially developed to determine the risk of spread of Ebola and other similar diseases.

“As a regionally-based team, we were able to move quickly to produce internationally recognised, high-quality research relevant to Australians,” Professor McBryde said.

“We were able to extend and re-purpose existing modelling methodologies and technologies and develop new methodologies, with the aim of assessing the severity and transmissibility of COVID-19.”

As the epidemic proceeded, the team produced reports estimating COVID-19 transmissibility across Australian jurisdictions, which was used to assess progress of State and Federal Government policies.

Within the first months of 2020, the Institute’s research team backed up their work with 13 peer-reviewed published papers, with a further seven under review, two of which have received reviews in the prestigious Nature Communications journal.

The team’s applied mathematician and infectious diseases modeller Dr Adeshina Adekunle developed the Global Pandemic Map website, used to predict how quickly and where an emerging epidemic caused by a virus or pathogen would spread from a source country to other nations around the globe.

The tool could be programmed for different diseases by varying factors like the incubation period, rate of infection and death rates, and it could also demonstrate how travel restrictions would slow the spread.

The Institute’s Clinical research biostatistician Dr Oyelola Adegboye assessed the risk of the global spread of COVID-19 in the early phase of the pandemic and how international border closure was crucial in the control of the disease.

The team’s Health Economist and Data Scientist Dr Anton Pak has evaluated the economic impact of the pandemic.

As States and Territories achieved good control, Professor McBryde’s team moved towards designing strategies for relaxing restrictions that would not lead to secondary waves.

During every step of the way, the modelling research team informed its partners at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), which is the decision-making committee for health emergencies comprised of all state and territory Chief Health Officers and chaired by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer.

Major stakeholders in the Australian Government used the research to take decisive action to close borders, a move which was instrumental in reducing the number of infections and deaths across the country.

The team’s research was delivered into reports such as The Implications of Unmitigated Epidemics, and The Road to Reopening, which were presented to the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia, and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

 As States and Territories achieved good control, McBryde’s team moved towards designing strategies for relaxing restrictions that would not lead to secondary waves.

It also reported on ways of achieving herd immunity while minimising loss of life, and is now working on optimising vaccine delivery strategies.

The team’s infectious diseases physician and epidemiologist Dr Diana Rojas Alvarez, is now engaged in vaccine development with the World Health Organisation in Geneva, while our mathematician and infectious diseases modeller Dr Michael Meehan, is developing algorithms to determine the best strategy for vaccine roll-out.

In April 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cited the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine’s research into COVID-19, saying that in most jurisdictions Australia had the scientific knowledge, and was on track to control the pandemic.

Enduring impacts have been achieved through this research by reporting findings and engaging with key decision and policy-makers which included the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

The team members have been called on to present to the international modelling consortium, at regional and global World Health Organisation briefings, and have been invited to consultancies across regional countries including Malaysia and The Philippines, through the Global Fund.


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