National Science and Technology Council: Sixth meeting
The sixth meeting of the National Science and Technology Council (the Council), and second meeting discussing the COVID-19 pandemic, was held via videoconference on 21 May 2020. The meeting was chaired by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO, as the Prime Minister and Minister Karen Andrews were unable to attend. Guests included Ms Glenys Beauchamp PSM, Chair of the Health Industry Coordination Group (HICG), Professor Tanya Monro, Chief Defence Scientist and Mr David Thodey AO, Deputy Chair of the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC).
Ms Beauchamp updated the Council on the achievements of the HICG in response to the pandemic, including exceeding targets set for procurement of surgical masks, P2 and N95 masks, goggles, gowns, test kits and ventilators. Mr David Fredericks PSM, Secretary of the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, thanked Ms Beauchamp for her leadership and noted that the National Press Club Address from Minister Andrews on 20 May highlighted the importance of securing critical Australian manufacturing capability, which will build on the work of the HICG.
Professor Monro provided insights on how Defence Science and Technology has responded to COVID-19. Defence engineers and scientists have developed a way to convert non-invasive ventilators to invasive ventilators, produced face shield PPE, contributed to pandemic modelling, developed a point-of-care diagnostic device and conducted virus survivability studies.
Dr Larry Marshall informed the Council about the significant and varied research underway at CSIRO relating to COVID-19. In particular, Dr Marshall touched on the development and dissemination of data and analytics to state and federal governments. The data has been used to predict trends and display emergence of virus clusters, enabling real time scenario planning and data-driven policy decisions. The Council was also updated on progress CSIRO has made on the testing of two vaccine candidates as well as possibilities for domestic vaccine production.
The COVIDSafe contact tracing app was discussed, with insights provided by Professor Genevieve Bell on consumer attitudes towards location technology, data storage and privacy. Professor Bell commented on the importance of ongoing communication with citizens to ensure they understand how it works and benefits them, and that the app is just one part of a broad public health campaign.
Mr Thodey provided a brief update on the work of the NCCC. The importance of science and research is emerging as a key theme in consultations with industry and other leaders. The Council also discussed the work of the Rapid Research Information Forum, which is providing evidence-based responses to questions posed by Ministers relating to COVID-19 and its impacts.
The Council agreed that Australia is well-placed to manage the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and reflected on the collaborative achievements of government, industry and the science and research sector so far.