Dr Foley chairs panel discussion on US-Australian COVID innovation

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Image: Clockwise from top left, Mick Farrell of ResMed, Cathy Foley, Raina MacIntyre of the Kirby Institute, Paul Perreault of CSL and former US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

In one of her first public appearances as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley chaired a discussion exploring collaborations and innovative contributions between Australia and the US in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Titled “US-Australia Dialogue on Medical Innovation in Response to COVID-19”, the February 3 webinar highlighted some key themes for Dr Foley, centred around the immediate response to the pandemic, and lessons for Australia’s medical manufacturing.

The panel discussion included the chief executives of two companies leading the global effort, CSL and ResMed.

They were joined by the former US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and the head of the Kirby Institute’s biosecurity program at the University of New South Wales, Professor Raina MacIntyre.

Dr Foley said both CSL and ResMed had been highly responsive and inventive in the pandemic, taking significant risks to realise important production. ResMed, whose primary focus is devices for sleep disorders, shifted focus quickly to manufacture thousands of ventilators. The company ramped up its production despite border closures and travel and supply chain disruptions, as its chief executive officer, Mick Farrell, explained to the webinar.

CSL has contracts to manufacture the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine in Melbourne, and is involved in the development of plasma-based and other therapies. Both companies originated in Australia.

Dr Foley said the webinar had highlighted some key lessons from the pandemic.

Collaboration between the science and research community, industry and government had been crucial in Australia’s success. The response had been accelerated by international collaboration.

“Although this has come together for a pandemic situation, the lessons learned are pervasive across pretty much all the ways we have to operate,” she said. “It’s almost like a science experiment which has happened in real time, and it has demonstrated that when you bring all everyone together to focus on a problem you see this amazing response.”

Professor MacIntyre highlighted the potential of open source data to provide an early warning of future pandemics.

The Kirby Institute’s Epiwatch Observatory found that indications of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 were available through social media three months before the World Health Organisation became aware. In Melbourne, signals of a severe outbreak of thunderstorm asthma in 2016 were available nine hours before the officially reported time.

Professor MacIntyre said open source data had been used effectively since the 9-11 attack to head off terrorist threats, but western countries had been “old-fashioned” in their use of data in public health. She welcomed the US decision to establish an interagency National Centre for Epidemic Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to provide early warnings.

The explosion in data, digital capability and automation are changing science and industry. Dr Foley pointed to the ability of the digital world not only to provide early warnings, as shown by Professor MacIntyre’s work, but also to transform the health system, as demonstrated in the take-up of telehealth and electronic record-keeping during the pandemic.

“This has opened the doors for remote access health, but it’s not only health. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to change the way society works in the future,” she said.

Kathleen Sebelius expressed the hope that the pandemic would become a “9-11 moment” for the US health system, sparking permanent change. She anticipated a dramatic expansion of access to digital health and telehealth, saying health had been “pretty impervious to technology” and it was time that changed.

She pointed to Operation Warp Speed as a success, describing it as a collaboration between the best scientific minds globally and the might and muscle of the US government to put money behind a number of vaccine candidates and to clear regulatory barriers.

She also highlighted Australia’s pandemic success, due to building trust with the population, collaborating across state borders and basing decisions on data. The US was ready to collaborate and keen to learn lessons from others, including from Australia, in areas such as contact tracing and wastewater studies, she said.

CSL chief executive officer Paul Perreault emphasised the need for countries to be realistic about the fact that COVID-19 would remain with us for the next couple of years, necessitating a strong focus on managing the disease.

Professor MacIntyre echoed the message that the virus was likely to remain active for some time, especially in light of the reluctance to get vaccinated in some countries and the lack of access to vaccines in others. She predicted the emergence of “immunity passports” to allow people to travel depending on their vaccine status.

The event was an initiative of G'Day USA and the American Australian Association and introduced by Australia’s Ambassador to the US, the Hon Arthur Sinodinos, who said he was a great believer in Australia’s medical research and innovation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed the COVID-19 pandemic in his first phone call with US President Joe Biden in November. At the time, Mr Morrison said Mr Biden was keen to learn from Australia’s experience.

The webinar is available here.

Last updated: Thursday, 18 February 2021