What’s COVID-19 doing to Australian Biotech ?

Cartherics Chief Scientific Officer Richard Boyd and Chief Operating Officer Ian Nisbet take a hard look

It’s hardly news. COVID-19 is a global threat. By the end of May 2020 it had killed 356,000 people worldwide and 103 Australians. The cost to the global economy is estimated in the trillions of dollars and Governments around the world have pushed their borrowings to unprecedented levels to try and keep their economies afloat. The effects of the pandemic will be felt for decades to come.

Despite an almost global lockdown, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 continues to spread and the possibility for second and subsequent waves of infection remain high. This will continue to be the case until researchers develop a suite of diagnostic tools, new or rejigged treatments and, hopefully, a vaccine to halt it in its tracks.

But scientific and biotech experts contribute more to the fight against COVID-19 than just tackling the medical challenges it poses. They provide invaluable advice to politicians and policymakers as they develop strategies for tackling the current pandemic and, hopefully, preparing for the all-too-inevitable next one.

Of course, such advice is only useful if it is listened to and acted upon. When certain world leaders say “no-one could have imagined this would happen”, they are wrong. WE WERE WARNED.

Zoonotic diseases have infected – and fascinated – we humans for millennia. That attention came into sharp focus and major research efforts emerged after the 1997 H5N1 bird flu pandemic, SARS in 2003 and 2015 when MERS hit South Korea. Researchers raised warning flags.

Even Bill Gates got on the ‘be prepared’ bandwagon. In 2015 he posted a TED talk, stating that the greatest risk of a global catastrophe killing millions of people was not a nuclear war but a highly infectious virus.

Even Hollywood got in on the act with films like Pandemic (2016) and Contagion (2011).

But the potent combination of ineptitude, short-sightedness and unwillingness to listen to expert advice meant that, with the exception of a handful of countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, most countries were woefully unprepared for COVID-19.

Sustained, rigorous biomedical research into understanding disease processes and the needs for therapy, along with establishing and maintaining pandemic preparations, are our most powerful protection against zoonoses.

We welcome the May 15 announcement by Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt that in partnership with MTPConnect the Federal Govermnment will allocate $22.3 million from the Biomedical Translation Bridge Program to support COVID-19 related research projects.

That’s a good start but it comes from a low base. Until Hunt’s announcement – and excluding $48.1 million for National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response he announced the same day – The Feds had committed just $36 million on COVID-19 research, including just $8 million for novel anti-SARS-CoV2 therapies. In contrast, the ‘Sports Rort’ affair involves grants of $102.5 million.

When will politicians really listen to the experts and adopt rational approaches to infectious disease diagnosis, control, therapeutic recovery and prophylactic avoidance? These viruses have evolved mechanisms to avoid eradication. They are complex, requiring multidimensional understanding of their inherent biology and that of susceptible patients before vaccine-based cure or prevention can be entertained.

Clearly, the research and biotechnology sectors must work closely together for any hope of broad-based translation.

Critically though, a modest amount of direct funding to COVID-19 research does nothing to support and maintain the biotechnology sector, the sector translates such research into useful outcomes. Throwing money mud at a wall and hoping a cure will suddenly stick is fundamentally unrealistic. Strategic, integrated technologies developed in concert with the health sectors is the answer.

The moment is now but this isn’t a short-term endeavour. The investment into medical research not only defends Australia against the current pandemic and its next son-of-COVID iteration but also establishes a new high-technology, long-term work force.

To help make the point, this month six organisations representing the medical health and biotech sector released a joint statement.

They noted that pre-revenue health and medical start-ups, like our company Cartherics, together support roughly 55,000 highly-skilled jobs nationwide yet are not eligible for the JobKeeper program. Why? They don’t have any revenue, let alone revenue reduced by 30%, a criterion for funding.

To say the least, it’s hard to develop needed medical advances without staff and without money. And as the statement says, “Omitting pre-revenue life science companies has the potential to knock over the entire industry”. That’s not just in the short term. Many companies may close down for good.

As well, biotech and other early-stage companies financed by risk capital do not qualify for any other State or Federal Government COVID-19 support schemes. It makes economic as well as medical sense to revise the eligibility criteria for such schemes, as well as the JobKeeper program.

It is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic comes as biotech companies face additional ongoing pressures. The Federal Government, for instance, actively seeks to wind back the one long-term program that provides practical and critical financial support to the sector – the R&D tax rebate scheme.

As a result, biotech companies have had to reduce their cash burn and delay R&D programs focused on addressing major human health issues, including development of new treatments for viral diseases.

In addition, the ability of these companies to raise risk capital in the future is reduced because of finance- and lockdown-associated delays to their programs, compounded by the fact that, in uncertain times like now, risk capital is the first to dry up and the last to re-appear.

The implications are clear. Australian researchers and biotech firms have outstanding and highly relevant skills. They want to contribute their expertise to the fight against COVID-19, its zoonotic cousins and descendants. They want to develop technology that will prevent future health and economic disasters.  They want to develop new treatments for the diseases that afflict health and well-being around the world.  But to do so they need to be nurtured, not discarded.

There are many lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, one of them will be that investment in medical research and development is just that, an investment.  Not an expense to be chopped and changed based on the budgetary whim of the day.  Not an optional extra that can be ignored or dismissed because its outcomes don’t fit in with a convenient budgetary or electoral cycle.  Instead, an investment for a better, healthier, future.

In 1905 philosopher George Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Will we remember this time??