In 2020, science and health mattered – more than anything else, and arguably more than at any time in recent history. Epidemiologists became household names. Evidence was debated over dinner; the staid world of vaccine trials turned into a horse race as closely watched as the Melbourne Cup. Australians made key contributions to understanding the evolution of COVID-19, how to save lives, and how to protect people from it. Perhaps most impressively, our culture of evidence-based medicine held firm in the face of conspiracy and pseudoscience; clinicians largely stuck to proven treatments even as the US President embraced hydroxychloroquine.
This heroic effort can go a little unnoticed, because we cannot see what did not happen. But a glance at Europe or the US tells us we did incredibly well. Science and health wins are a true group effort, not least by the doctors, nurses and other staff manning the COVID frontline in hospitals around the country, putting their own lives at risk for the sake of others and the greater good.
Thus, knowing a list like this could never give due credit to everyone, here are some of the people who really mattered in 2020, starting with those at the pointy end of Australia’s blue-chip handling of this ongoing pandemic.
Brendan Murphy, Kerry Chant and Brett Sutton.Credit:Dion Georgopoulos, Simon Schluter, Dominic Lorrime
Chief health officers
An Instagram fan page describes Professor Brendan Murphy as “the man who saved Australia”. Hyperbolic, yes, but with his bushy eyebrows and pursed lips, the former national chief medical officer, now federal health secretary, became the face of Australia’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic. Murphy’s stint as the country’s top medico was supposed to end in
February, but he stayed until June, advising Australia’s political leaders to take the kind of radical actions unthinkable before 2020: the early, crucial closure of Australia’s borders to China, mandatory quarantining for international arrivals, and a suite of restrictions on freedoms we once took for granted.
“He and the team simply could not have been more effective, and have put Australia at the forefront of the global response to the pandemic,” observes Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Murphy weathered sustained criticism in the early months concerning the federal government’s at times less-than-clear messaging. (“Should we go to the football? What about the gym?”) No decision was more controversial than the refusal of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to endorse widespread school closures, prompting those states and territories that decided to empty schools of all but the children of essential workers to act against its health advice.
Murphy’s state and territory counterparts, the chief health officers, joined him as the country’s most crucial advisers, drawing on robust available science and public health evidence in a highly politicised climate.
NSW’s Dr Kerry Chant and Victoria’s Dr Brett Sutton weathered controversies in our most densely populated and hardest-hit jurisdictions – Chant over the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle, Sutton over Victoria’s hotel quarantine breaches – to become almost daily fixtures in our news feeds. In so doing, these formerly back-room health officials earned the trust of their communities at a time of great uncertainty. Sutton became an unlikely heartthrob, while Chant was practically canonised.
“To me, Kerry Chant is like a saint,” says NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard. “She’s also a 24-hour-a-day Trojan. She works and works and works in the community’s interest.”
NSW Scientist of the Year Professor Eddie Holmes. Credit:Louie Douvis
Professor Eddie Holmes
Exactly when the world got its first glimpse under the hood of this new world-shattering virus can be traced back to a single moment on January 11. In his home study, University of Sydney professor Edward “Eddie” Holmes uploaded for publication the genome sequence for the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2. The decision to share the virus’s blueprint was the catalyst for cascading breakthroughs aimed at bringing the pandemic to heel – including the first rapid test kits – and provided a bullseye for vaccine developers to target with their most promising prototypes. The first person to publish the sequence anywhere in the world, Holmes was named NSW Scientist of the Year in October.
Holmes is “the very best kind of scientist”, says University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence. “Eddie’s a humble guy driven by an absolute passionate curiosity. He wants to understand more, and is always thinking about the next problem, the next question in virology and fighting genetic diseases. He’s a rock star with a brain the size of the universe, and a thoroughly nice person. He cares about the impact of his work, not the work for its own sake but to see science make a difference in this world.”
A global authority on virology and virus genetics, Holmes was among countless virologists and virus epidemiologists who for years had warned of the inevitable emergence of a new virus with pandemic potency. Their hope is that when the next one jumps from its animal host to humans, governments will have learnt the lessons of SARS-CoV-2.
Dr Jennie Musto and the virus detectives
Few Australians were familiar with the work of epidemiologists before 2020. Even fewer would have heard of a contact tracer. Yet these sleuths have been our last line of defence against COVID-19. NSW’s chief virus detective, epidemiologist Dr Jennie Musto, led the team that set what Prime Minister Scott Morrison describes as the “gold standard” in virus tracing and containment. Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel and Victoria’s pandemic response team travelled to Sydney to learn what they could from Musto’s crack operation.
That core team is patched into a massive network of contact tracers across the state’s public health units, who track the spidery spread of SARS-CoV-2 using high-tech data systems – and a humble whiteboard cluttered with mud maps. Their mission: to find the source of every cluster and identify their every possible close and casual contact, in a bid to isolate the infected and starve the virus out.
“Jennie Musto brought the experience she had in the Middle East and the Pacific, fighting major viral outbreaks, to lead the intelligence nerve centre of our tracing operations,” says NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard.
“Their work has cut off chains of transmission that, if let loose, could have led to hundreds, if not thousands of deaths.” They haven’t always been successful, and the source of some outbreaks will likely remain interminable mysteries. But as long as the pandemic persists, these virus Sherlocks will be on the case.
Dan Watterson, Paul Young, Keith Chappell and Trent Munro.Credit:Courtesy of the University of Queensland
Professor Paul Young, Dr Keith Chappell, Dr Dan Watterson and Professor Trent Munro, the University Of Queensland
Seven years ago, these scientists came up with a novel idea for a new type of vaccine, based on a viral protein “clamped” in just the right shape to
stimulate a powerful immune response. If it worked, you could theoretically clamp any sort of virus protein you wanted – turning it into a multipurpose platform vaccine. They received funding to develop it from a coalition of countries worried about the next pandemic, and expected to spend years developing and testing. Then COVID-19 turned up, and overnight they were thrust into the forefront of the fight against it.
After working around the clock for months, they developed a vaccine that works in animals; human trials are now underway.
“While it’s not necessarily a silver bullet, a vaccine is what is required,” says University of Queensland associate professor Paul Griffin. “That group has been at the forefront of this.”
It’s still not yet clear if it will work but even if it doesn’t, their contribution goes further than just building the vaccine. Having a local vaccine project has
encouraged governments and local manufacturers like CSL to invest heavily in the vaccine infrastructure that’s needed for development, testing and distribution – all things Australia has historically lacked.
COVID-19 is likely to be the first pandemic of the modern age, not the last; having strong onshore infrastructure will be very important.
Lidia Morawska's advocacy pushed health agencies worldwide to take seriously the risks posed by airborne spread of the virus.
Professor Lidia Morawska, director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health, Queensland University of Technology
Professor Lidia Morawska may be both the most significant and most controversial scientist in Australia right now. In July, she marshalled more than 200 scientists worldwide to write a letter to the World Health
Organisation asking it to recognise that COVID-19 was spread through air.
She and her colleagues pointed to dozens of cases around the world that could only be explained if the virus is able to spread many metres through the stale air of a room.
Morawska went further: she argued there wasn’t much evidence that surface spread of COVID was a widespread problem.
The WHO eventually updated its advice to recognise the risks of airborne spread, as did the US’s public health agency. Australia’s federal government continues to insist the evidence does not support her conclusions.
“She doesn’t mind being controversial. She believes the evidence has to speak for itself,” says Guy Marks, professor of respiratory medicine at the University of NSW. Even if the evidence doesn’t shake out in her favour, Morawska’s advocacy pushed health agencies around the world to take the risks seriously. “She certainly matters,” says Marks.
The work of Julian Druce, at left, and Mike Catton is as much art as science.Credit:Joe Armao
Dr Julian Druce, Head of the Virus Identification Laboratory at the Doherty Institute, and its Deputy Director, Professor Mike Catton
Dr Julian Druce and Professor Mike Catton represent the quiet, effective
behind-the-scenes work that’s allowed Australia to deal with COVID-19 more effectively than many countries. The first scientists outside China to isolate and grow a live sample of SARS-CoV-2, the pair immediately shared it with laboratories around the country and the world, where it became a crucial part of vaccine development and drug studies.
This sort of work is as much art as science. The Doherty Institute has been preparing for years for a threat like COVID; it’s one of the few labs in the world to maintain huge libraries of cell types able to grow novel viruses. In the end, it was a kidney cell from a monkey that unlocked the virus’s riddle. “It’s an art, and Julian is the artist,” says Catton.
Before they’d captured the virus, Druce and Catton had been using DNA sequences to build Australia’s first COVID test. The live sample they captured allowed them to perfect it. That’s a much bigger deal than it might seem. The first COVID test kit built by US government scientists didn’t work, meaning that that country had no idea it was widely infected for months.
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