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Infectious disease and public health experts say Australia is well prepared to respond to a major pandemic, but cannot afford to be complacent.
In a commentary published in the Medical Journal of Australia, a number of Australia’s leading infectious disease researchers said Australia had learnt from global responses to recent devastating outbreaks such as Zika and Ebola viruses, and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
Co-author Dr Rose Ffrench, head of Burnet’s Viral Immunology Laboratory, said Australia was generally well prepared for a pandemic, although more so for existing pathogens than unknown ones.
“One of the reasons it’s difficult to predict what kind of pathogen might be coming is the increasing interactions between climate and environment and infectious diseases,” Dr Ffrench said.
“Around the world human health services need to work together with those working in climate change research and animal health to monitor what might be coming.”
Dr Ffrench said Australia’s pandemic response systems were well tested during the 2009 influenza pandemic.
“We were one of the fastest countries to get sequences from the World Health Organization collaborating centres to diagnostic facilities so they could start looking for the strains using nucleic acid testing, and then soon after a vaccine was produced at CSL,” she said.
“One thing which could certainly be improved is the process for getting new vaccines into clinical trials. It can take many months before a vaccine that has been produced is tested for human safety and made available to the public.”
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy said it was difficult to predict when the next pandemic would hit, or its likely source, despite Australia’s comprehensive and robust surveillance systems.
Australia’s research response has been enhanced by the launch since 2009 of four centres of research excellence, including the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Planning on Infectious Disease Emergencies (APPRISE).
APPRISE Chief Investigator, Professor Sharon Lewin said the network would focus on multidisciplinary research ranging from the needs of communities and hospitals to the ethics of decisions made during outbreaks.
“We will always be challenged to improve because a characteristic of pandemic responses is what works today might not work in five years’ time,” she said.