News / 13 May 2020

BIO-MEDICAL researchers gravitate toward understanding and working on problems that are indisputably important.

This position is brutally enforced by grant review panels, with questions such as, “How many people does it kill a year? What is the market value? What is the situation in the clinic?” shaping decisions to fund or not to fund.

Every successful scientist learns to defend their position to remain competitive and secure scarce funding dollars. What this means is that research that appears even slightly less relevant is consigned to the dustbin of scientific history.

The current pandemic shows this approach is no longer sustainable. Until November 2019, SARS-CoV (a close relative of SARS-CoV-2) was a vanquished virus with discovery work in this area halted or regarded as pedestrian. Now we have been caught short.

Research around the world, some of it decades old, is being reactivated with the goal of transforming it into something gleaming, interesting and useful.

Our research communities have not been funded deeply enough to support the extra diverse capacity that may have been sufficient to fend off our current disaster.

We will be unbelievably lucky if any ‘off-the-shelf’ therapeutic for COVID-19 can emerge rapidly enough from the closet of current or abandoned therapeutics or mothballed research activities.

Effective drugs generally arise from decades of hard, dogged basic biomedical research rather than clinical trials on old molecules.

No doubt new broad-spectrum antivirals against coronaviruses will emerge in the coming years.

However, the threat of the next pandemic should be sufficient motivation to build the nation’s scientific capacity. This effort should be combined with the development of a plan to rapidly bring relevant scientific teams around the nation together in times of need, thus concentrating effort and avoiding duplication.

We must establish a well-integrated national approach for funding a diversity and depth of research we hope we might never need. At the same time, we must develop a strategic plan to deploy such research capabilities in the event that we do. The cost of such insurance is tiny in comparison to the bill we currently are facing.

We need to be prepared for the unexpected — and the time to invest in that preparedness is now.

Professor James Whisstock is the Director of EMBL Australia and an ARC Laureate Fellow in the Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Monash University.