There is much that Australia did right with COVID-19, but the CSIRO has made 20 recommendations to better equip the country when faced with another pandemic.
The new report released on Tuesday found there were six key areas that would ensure a successful national response to a future pandemic.
The report was prepared following consultations with 146 experts from 66 organisations across government, industry and the research sector.
Among the recommendations, the agency called on the federal government to diversify the nation’s vaccine manufacturing capabilities; to improve virus knowledge, and to develop national pandemic data standards.
Greg Williams, associate director of health and biosecurity at CSIRO Futures, said Australia got many things right, but there’s room for improvement.
“We think there’s a lot more we can do,” he told RN Drive.
What did Australia do well?
The report applauded Australia’s travel restrictions and quarantine measures, and stated these restrictions were key to keeping COVID-19 infections lower than other countries.
“I know it didn’t always feel like it, but by international standards, Australia performed really strongly and particularly in terms of infection rates that we managed to keep quite comparatively low,” Mr Williams told RN Drive’s Patricia Karvelas.
“A lot of that was due to our early adoption of things like travel restrictions and lockdown measures. And then, in time, our great vaccine uptake rates.”
However, the report acknowledged that many of these measures were high-risk, short-term solutions, and that technological and scientific advancements were needed.
“Many of these interventions … result in significant economic, social and indirect health costs when implemented, and are increasingly difficult to implement as the duration of a pandemic grows,” it stated.
What can be improved upon?
The CSIRO produced 20 recommendations within six areas of improvement.
If implemented, the agency said they could significantly reduce the economic, social and indirect health costs associated with travel restrictions and quarantine measures.
Rather, the country could move towards “an integrated cycle of prevention, detection, response and recovery”.
Pre-clinical capabilities for medical counter-measures
Viruses within viral families that held pandemic potential were “poorly understood” around the world, the report found.
Australia must prioritise the understanding of these threatening viruses, particularly in the Coronaviridae, Flaviviridae, Orthomyxoviridae, Paramyxoviridae and Togaviridae families.
The report urged the government to diversify its onshore vaccine manufacturing capabilities.
US biotech company Moderna has plans to build an mRNA vaccine manufacturing facility in Victoria.
Although it’s a promising start, the report called for the onshore development of multiple vaccine varieties by 2030.
Mr Williams said it was crucial to have vaccine options readily available for when the next pandemic arrives.
“We don’t know which type [of vaccine] will be the most effective against the next pandemic,” he said.
“It might well be the mRNA, and it might well be the whole virus, but it may not be, because we don’t know which ultimate virus is going to come out.”
Therapeutics repurposing and novel antivirals
The report called for an expansion of screening for commercially available therapeutic antiviral medications that could be used as treatments, along with the creation of a central database of therapeutics.
Several direct-acting antivirals to target priority viral families should be in development by 2030, the report stated.
Point-of-care diagnostics for case identification
There were inconsistencies in jurisdictional diagnostics requirements, largely caused by increasing demands on laboratories, the report found.
Australia needed to have a diverse range of diagnostic options available to test for future pandemic-level viruses.
Genomic analysis of pathogens and their variants
There should be a national genomic analysis program to avoid disconnect and confusion between states and jurisdictions, the report stated.
It also called for an improvement of workforce skills in bioinformatics, metagenomics, statistical genomics modelling, and genomic epidemiology.
Data sharing for informing response strategies
Lastly, the report said Australia needed to establish national data standards.
“Australia faces data-sharing limitations due to the varying governance of health systems within and across jurisdictions,” the report said.
“This restricts policy decisions being made in a timely and well-informed manner, especially during pandemics.”
What comes next?
The federal government acknowledged the importance of the report, but stopped short of saying if, when or how the recommendations would be implemented.
In a joint statement the Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic and Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler said the government would respond to the CSIRO report ‘‘in due course’’.
“This report is about learning the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and analysing how we are better placed to act faster, more decisively and in a more informed way,’’ Mr Butler said.
“The delivery of greater vaccine manufacturing capabilities in Australia is a great step towards future preparations and driving research into other viruses means our health experts are well placed to respond quickly to an emerging threat.’’
The CSIRO report also highlighted the growing frequency and severity of viral disease outbreaks.
It said more viruses had been transmitted from animals to humans over the past century.
It attributed this largely due to climate change, increasing urbanisation, environmental destruction and increased global trade and travel.
Mr Williams said the upswing in these viruses meant there ‘‘will be another pandemic’’.
‘‘Any time humans and animals are interacting more, there’s obviously a situation where there’s that increased risk of diseases that are only in the animal, then transferring and mutating and making their way into human populations.’’
The CSIRO’s full Strengthening Australia’s Pandemic Preparedness report is available here.