April 5, 2020  Print

Finding the answers to the global pandemic that is COVID-19 becomes increasingly urgent day-by-day. Worldwide, researchers are working around the clock to try to solve this deadly mystery.

This is certainly the case at The Westmead Institute for Medical Research (WIMR), where we are proud to be playing a significant role in saving lives.

Researchers at WIMR believe that stopping deaths from COVID-19 requires input from a range of scientific disciplines. This is why, across WIMR’s 11 research centres, scientists are working tirelessly to develop new methods of diagnosing and treating COVID-19, to help flatten the curve, and reduce rates of infection.

At WIMR, genomics is at the heart of our research efforts. Dr John-Sebastian Eden is a researcher and virologist who is using genetic sequencing of the COVID-19 virus to help understand where genetic variants have come from and how they are spreading in the community.

While his work right now is firmly focused on COVID-19, Dr Eden says he also expects it to have longer-term impact. “I am working on ways to identify new viruses easily so we can prevent outbreaks, like COVID-19, from happening in the future.”

Dr Eden’s genomic insight is central to the work of a number of research teams at WIMR, helping to direct and refine their research approaches. One research group is using this data to develop a rapid blood test that will allow doctors to better predict a patient’s outcome and guide their treatment. Another team at WIMR is working to create a vaccine for some of those at greatest risk from COVID-19. 

Associate Professor Benjamin Tang is an intensive care doctor and a coronavirus researcher. His lab is based in WIMR and Nepean Hospital, Sydney. Currently, we have no means of predicting which COVID-19 patients will require urgent medical treatment, and which patients can be treated at home. Associate Professor Tang and his team are developing the world’s first predictive blood test to establish which patients will need to be admitted to hospital for urgent medical treatment (rather than home quarantine).

The team hopes that the blood test will help ‘buy more time’ as together, health professionals, authorities and the community work to ‘flatten the curve’.  By more effectively ‘triaging’ patients and identifying which are likely to become most sick, and which are unlikely to require intensive medical intervention, it is also hoped this test will help ease the burden on struggling health systems in Australia and around the world.

Associate Professor Tang emphasises that we all have a role to play, and social distancing is the best weapon we have.

“Fighting coronavirus is like a war. This is the easiest war to win…if we all stay at home. If not, many thousands of people will die,” he said.

The search for a COVID-19 vaccine is truly international and a priority for many research teams.  At WIMR, we are leveraging our world-class expertise in viral research and vaccines, and are working to produce the first vaccine for COVID-19 that works against genetic variants of the virus worldwide. In particular, the WIMR team is working on a vaccine that is specifically effective for some of the most vulnerable people in our community – the elderly.

Professor Tony Cunningham AO is a researcher and virologist, with extensive experience in vaccine development. Professor Cunningham’s recent work has focused on the development of a vaccine for shingles that is highly effective in people aged 70 and above.

Professor Cunningham said, “In the past, we have been able to contribute to highly effective vaccines in the ageing. Our skill set means it is our responsibility to help.”

In fact, Professor Cunningham believes we all have a responsibility to help however we can.  He encourages everyone to actively take preventative measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
As a researcher and virologist focused on vaccine development, Professor Tony Cunningham knows how crucial preventative measures are in reducing the spread and impact of viruses.

“Washing your hands regularly, practising social distancing, practising coughing and sneezing into your arm or a tissue, and avoiding touching your face are just some of the ways we can all help prevent the spread of disease.

“While developing an effective vaccine, particularly for groups most at-risk of developing COVID-19 is our priority, it’s important that everyone does their bit to help prevent the spread of disease,” Professor Cunningham said.

There is another way you can play your part.  In order to continue this urgent, life-saving COVID-19 research, WIMR scientists need your support. Donate now to WIMR’s COVID-19 research and know you are contributing to solving this global health emergency.

We save lives. You can too.