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Case study: NHMRC’s response to COVID-19

As with the Australian community as a whole, the health and medical research sector has been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These effects have included interruptions to research activities, increased workloads for frontline healthcare and public health researchers, and increased caring responsibilities. Below is a brief summary of the actions taken by NHMRC in response to the pandemic across each of our purposes: investment, translation and integrity.

Investment

Throughout 2019–20, NHMRC has continued to fund health and medical research and build research capability by offering new grant opportunities and supporting existing NHMRC-funded researchers, while also making adjustments to our policies and programs in response to COVID-19.

On 19 March and 27 March 2020, the CEO issued communiqués to the health and medical research sector noting the issues facing the sector and advising of changes to NHMRC activities in response. These communiqués addressed issues such as:

  • recognising the effects of the pandemic on the health and medical research sector, including on particular groups, and on the broader Australian community
  • advising NHMRC-funded researchers that they were/are able to vary or delay their research activities to account for disruptions due to COVID-19 through NHMRC’s standard grant variation processes
  • announcing the extension of application deadlines for the Ideas Grant and Clinical Trials and Cohort Studies schemes for 2020, and cancellation of the 2020 Synergy Grants round
  • suspending all face-to-face committee meetings, including grant review panel meetings.

On 13 May 2020, NHMRC announced that a streamlined peer review process, without grant review panels, would be used for the 2020 Ideas Grants round. This change was important to reduce the peer review burden on the sector and maximise the chance of announcing outcomes by the end of 2020.

In early June, NHMRC extended the closing date for the Ideas Grant scheme by another week to 17 June 2020 in response to concerns that the relatively late full return to face-to-face teaching in Victorian schools created inequities for some applicants.

Information was made available and regularly updated on NHMRC’s website from March 2020, including a page of frequently asked questions on the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on applications for NHMRC funding, peer review, grant management and other NHMRC processes.

Translation

Throughout 2019–20, NHMRC has supported the translation of health and medical research into better health outcomes, including supporting national and international efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. For example, NHMRC-funded researchers have been provided with the flexibility to pivot their research focus to COVID-19, or to delay their planned research activities while they contributed to the clinical or public health response.

On 14 April 2020, the Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, announced an additional $2 million in NHMRC funding for the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on Infectious Disease Emergencies (APPRISE) for research to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. APPRISE is an NHMRC-funded Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) supported by a $5 million grant over 5 years from 2016 to 2021. APPRISE has undertaken a range of activities since 2016 to establish research preparedness in infectious diseases and, from January 2020, has been contributing to the national COVID-19 response. The competitive funding call to establish this special CRE included a provision for NHMRC to request and fund the CRE to undertake rapid research responding to an infectious disease emergency.

Examples of the research that was enabled or enhanced through the emergency funding provided by NHMRC in April 2020 were:

  • serosurveys of population immunity to the new coronavirus
  • strengthened participation of Australian intensive care units in the international REMAP-CAP clinical trial to evaluate multiple interventions in critically ill COVID-19 patients
  • studies to understand the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities and people in aged care facilities.

Australian researchers have also been part of the international research effort to respond to COVID-19. NHMRC is a member of the Global Research Collaboration for Infectious Disease Preparedness (GloPID-R), an international network of major research funding organisations that invest in research capacity to support the rapid initiation of scientific research in an outbreak. NHMRC also supported the delivery of funding calls through the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), including for urgent research on COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and respiratory illness.

The Office of NHMRC has been supporting the work of the National COVID-19 Health and Research Advisory Committee since it was established in April 2020. The committee, which is co-chaired by Professor Sharon Lewin AO and Professor Michael Kidd AM, is providing evidence-based advice to the Chief Medical Officer to assist with Australia’s health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of 30 June 2020, the committee has met on 16 occasions and provided advice on issues such as:

  • accurately measuring antibody levels to better understand population and individual immunity
  • the use of convalescent plasma for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19
  • ethical issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia
  • mental health impacts of quarantine and self-isolation
  • risks of resurgence of COVID-19 in Australia
  • COVID-19 issues for urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Integrity

While recognising the urgency of research to address COVID-19, NHMRC has continued to promote the highest standards of ethics and integrity as paramount at all times, including during a pandemic.

In March 2020, NHMRC was involved in the provision of information and advice to institutions conducting or overseeing research, including Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs), researchers and sponsors, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19: Guidance on clinical trials for institutions, HRECs, researchers and sponsors was released as a joint statement of all state and territory and the Commonwealth departments of health, the Therapeutic Goods Administration and NHMRC. The statement was first published on 24 March 2020 and last updated on 9 April 2020.

The statement represents current thinking and best practice at the government level and will be reviewed and updated regularly to reflect changes in government policy, public health advice, and the needs of those conducting and participating in clinical research in Australia. It includes guidance to support expedited ethics review processes, such as for urgent COVID-19 research, if considered necessary by those responsible for overseeing the research.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be affecting existing research projects that use animals or may generate new research proposals that involve the use of animals. NHMRC also issued guidance on its website in March 2020 reminding institutions, researchers and others of their responsibilities under the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes.