Throughout 2020, I was often asked if when I took on the role of Director of the Doherty Institute in 2014, I thought I would be leading through a global pandemic. The short answer is no, but in saying that, the next pandemic was a given. As infectious diseases experts, however, many of us predicted influenza would be the culprit, not a novel coronavirus.
The Doherty Institute was purpose-built to respond to a pandemic. The Impact Report we published in 2020, Celebrating Five Years of the Doherty Institute, tells the story of our history. It was Professor James McCluskey, the University of Melbourne’s Acting Provost, and Dr Mike Catton, The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s (RMH) Director of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) and Co-Deputy Director of the Doherty Institute, who dreamed up the idea of the Doherty Institute over a decade ago, with a view for it to do exactly what we have done over the last 18 months – support and guide Australia’s response to a pandemic.
Shortly after starting as the inaugural Director of the Doherty Institute, we developed a strategic plan. Our plan was very much focused on integration and inclusion of the diverse disciplines and histories of the departments in the Doherty Institute, but one of our core aspirational dreams, articulated back in 2016, was to become the go-to, one-stop shop for anything related to infectious diseases and to become a household name. And over the last 18 months, we did just that!
It is fitting that it was Mike, with his longstanding colleague, The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Dr Julian Druce, Head of VIDRL’s Virus Identification Laboratory, who were the first in the world to isolate SARS-CoV-2 from a patient sample and cultivate it in cell culture outside of China, and the first to share it with the world.
I first learned about COVID-19 on 6 January 2020 when a patient of mine from China told me about an unusual pneumonia in 40 people in Wuhan. I looked it up and learnt that all cases were linked to the one seafood market, but recall thinking that it was strange my professional networks were not discussing it. When Mike and Julian isolated SARS-CoV-2 on 29 January 2020, Mike immediately called me to discuss the next steps. At the time I had just finished a gruelling seven-day hike in Patagonia and was in Santiago, Chile. By then, I was already concerned that the emerging crisis of COVID-19 was going to be big, but I hadn’t quite digested the enormity of Mike and Julian’s discovery. Mike and I discussed the pros and cons of sharing the virus immediately, rather than waiting. Mike was very keen on sharing immediately as he knew of the many laboratories desperate to validate tests and get to work on new therapeutics and vaccines. I am very glad I took his advice on this!
Since that moment at the end of January 2020, many staff across the Doherty Institute have worked day and night and thought of nothing else other than the pandemic. We were one of the first institutions outside of China to work on COVID-19 and our speed, hard work and commitment have paid off – for Australia in its successful public health response and in our crucial work to develop better diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
For me personally, as a clinician scientist who has spent my career focusing on understanding the virology, immunology and clinical care of HIV, I had learnt first-hand that the spectacular advances in our response to HIV arose from a deep investment in and prioritisation of science and through scientists working in partnership with political leaders and communities, not in isolation. Throughout 2020, I drew heavily on my scientific and personal experience with HIV to guide me in how to respond to COVID-19. Understanding the new science, widespread collaboration, open exchange of knowledge and ideas, working in multidisciplinary teams and clear public communication and engagement were all high on my agenda. I am tremendously proud of all our staff who also valued and embraced each of these principals.
As you will read over the following pages, the Doherty Institute has been involved in almost every facet of the response to COVID-19 – diagnosing and treating patients; whole genome sequencing of the majority of Victoria’s cases, as well as cases from across the Pacific region; mapping the immune response; epidemiological modelling to inform the Commonwealth’s public health measures; developing vaccine candidates; clinical trials to test treatments; and so much more.
While much of our research and public health work needed to pivot to COVID-19, we continued to make profound discoveries and impact in other areas. This includes (but is not limited to!) a critically important clinical trial of the optimal treatment for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), how gender plays an important role in immunity and a switch to telehealth sparked by our International and Immigrant Health Group.
Maintaining our non-COVID-19 work was not without its challenges. When government-imposed restrictions were put in place, the Institute sent many researchers and support staff home, most of whom worked on areas outside of COVID-19. The disruption on individuals and science has been immense. I was and continue to be struck by the resilience of our workforce and community who endured these significant challenges.
I am extremely proud of every single staff member and student at the Doherty Institute – our essential workers who worked night and day to process samples, treat patients and better understand the virus; those who stayed home, juggling work, caring responsibilities and poor internet connections; and our teaching staff and students, who almost overnight, took their learning online.
Thank you to each and every one of you.
A heartfelt thank you too to the generous support of our philanthropic donors – much of our work would not be possible without you.
While in Australia, at the time of writing, vaccines are being rolled out and we are living what we now refer to as relatively COVID-normal lives, new waves of the pandemic roll on around the world. We must always remember the pandemic is not over until it is over for everyone. Assisting our near neighbours is not only the right thing to do, but will be critical to ending the pandemic.
At the Doherty Institute, we are committed to improve human health globally through discovery research, and the prevention, treatment and cure of infectious diseases. 2020 showed the world just how important our work is and will continue to be for many decades to come.