Pandemic proofing our future

A project developing a test and treatments that would be effective against multiple viral threats could become a cornerstone of the world’s response to future pandemics.

University of Queensland virologist Dr Kirsty Short has been awarded $1.37 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHRMC) to use her understanding of the immune response in COVID-19 and influenza to investigate a future pandemic response.

“The reality is the world was not prepared for COVID-19, so our aim is start developing broad spectrum diagnostics and drugs that work against multiple viruses,” Dr Short said.

“If we develop these things now, we can stockpile them so that any time there’s a viral outbreak, we have them on hand, ready to deploy.”

Dr Short said the project would look for a genetic marker or ‘signature’ in people with COVID-19 that could be used in a rapid test that can be picked up before the viral genetic material can be detected by standard diagnostic PCR.

“We’re working with health authorities to access samples from people going through hotel quarantine and we’re combining that with machine learning to try and identify a signature that will then allow for the development of early diagnostics.”

While existing anti-viral therapies are developed for a specific virus, Dr Short’s project will investigate a treatment that targets the immune response to multiple viruses.

“An out-of-control inflammatory response is the reason some people become seriously ill in a coronavirus infection, in a flu infection and in many other pandemic viruses,” she said.

“By targeting that response, we can develop an effective therapy that is useful against any pandemic virus that you could anticipate.”

Dr Short said identifying a ‘host signature of infection’ would also allow for earlier detection of any virus, benefiting both the public health response and individual patients.

“If we take SARS-COV-2 as an example, you can be infected with the virus but initially get a negative PCR test and maybe five days later you test positive.

“With an early diagnostic test, we could determine whether an individual carries the ‘host signature’, which would allow us to identify those likely to come down with an infection.

“If you didn’t have the signature, you might be released earlier from quarantine or maybe allowed to home quarantine, making the process less arduous for everyone.”

The test and therapies would initially be rolled out in Australia, but Dr Short hoped they would also make a difference elsewhere.

“Ideally, we could have this as part of a global pandemic preparedness plan, because ultimately there will be another,” Dr Short said.

“What I really fundamentally hope is that this project will ensure that the next outbreak will be of much reduced severity and consequences compared to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

UQ received NHMRC grants for five Centres for Research Excellence (CRE), two Partnership Projects and 29 Investigator Grants in the latest round of funding.

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