Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences urges multi-pronged response for 2021

High levels of testing, efficient vaccine distribution and addressing pandemic mental health impacts are critical if Australia is to maintain control over COVID-19 in 2021, a new report from the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences has concluded.

The Academy’s report, ‘Maintaining strong foundations and building resilience: planning Australia’s path through the COVID-19 pandemic’, spells out the necessary next steps for the pandemic response in the new year.

“By any global measure the Australian approach has been a spectacular success,” said University of Sydney infectious diseases researcher, Professor Tania Sorrell, who chaired the committee that produced the report.

“But this has come at significant cost and, as the second wave in Victoria showed, success can be very fragile.”

Maintaining control – and avoiding the huge health and economic costs that would accompany a resurgence of the virus – will require a suite of strong public health and policy measures from federal, state and territory governments.

“Reported vaccine results of 90% effectiveness and above are encouraging,” said one of the co-authors, University of Queensland immunologist Professor Ian Frazer.

“But these vaccines will need an enormous effort to manufacture, transport, store and administer across Australia. And that is going to take a lot of time – very likely, deep into 2021. If we let our guard down before that, the virus will get away from us again.”

The AAHMS review concludes that Australia’s best strategy must combine:

  • ongoing implementation of comprehensive public health measures, including high levels of testing combined with contact tracing, isolation, quarantine, social distancing and mask-wearing;
  • optimal roll-out of vaccines and other interventions as they become available;
  • effective prevention and treatment of long-term health issues arising from the pandemic, including mental health and “long” COVID;
  • support to other countries in the region;
  • sustained and enhanced backing for research and innovation to develop the tools required to tackle the pandemic.

Professor Frazer is well-versed in the obstacles inherent in developing vaccine-based approaches to global health challenges. In 1991, he and virologist Jian Zhou successfully developed the world’s first vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), the primary cause of cervical cancer.

“Australia’s capacity to deliver effective public health programs, together with our world class research and innovation sector, mean that we are well placed to execute this agenda,” he said.

“Doing so successfully will also future-proof us, improving our ability to respond to other pandemics if and when they arise.” 

In the review, the Academy identifies four areas for priority attention, subdivided into 15 specific actions, to ensure that Australia is equipped to build a resilient system that is robust and yet flexible enough to continue its successful management of the pandemic – at home and abroad: 

  • We need to create effective systems and capabilities to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics.
  • We must monitor the health impacts of COVID-19 within Australia, and the acceptability, safety, efficacy and uptake of vaccines, treatments and other interventions.
  • We have to enable ethical and equitable roll out of vaccines, treatments and other interventions
  • And finally, we must be able to respond to the evolution of the pandemic through a readiness to modify public health measures appropriately.

Doing so successfully will bring additional, longer term benefits, through enhancing our ability to respond to future pandemics.

The report was developed in liaison with the Academy’s COVID-19 Expert Committee, which brings together interdisciplinary expertise from the Academy’s Fellowship. It was reviewed by the Academy’s Council and approved for publication by the Academy’s Executive.

Download the report and an underlying background briefing, which summarises the current evidence behind the review, below. You can also read more about our ongoing response to the pandemic in our COVID-19 Information Hub.

Image credit: Christian Emmer | emmer.com.ar