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Update from the Director: COVID-19

1 April 2020

As we near the end of the first week of lockdown, there is a sense of settling into the ‘new norm’. Many of you have been asking what that looks like for the Malaghan Institute, and how our expertise lends itself to the COVID-19 response. 

There are still fundamental unknowns about COVID-19 – both the virus itself, and the effect it will have on our future health and economic wellbeing. We do know, however, that through a combination of science, technology and social behaviour, we should be able to beat this particular virus.

I have every faith that making an effective vaccine for this novel coronavirus is possible. What we can’t yet predict is how long it will be until such a vaccine is widely available. While there is plenty of news about work underway towards a vaccine, even the most optimistic predictions from top scientists put a safe and effective vaccine that can be mass-produced at least 18 months away. There remain a few tricky aspects of the virus including how it infects people and hides from the immune system. We don't know whether or how the virus will evolve and we don't know whether there’s protective immunity once you’ve had infection. What is essential now is research – global, collaborative research – to understand this virus, and for communities globally to follow public health guidelines to minimise the virus’s impact.

The Malaghan Institute is currently putting its shoulder to the wheel in response to COVID-19, offering our expertise and capability in immunology and clinical research. We have been in discussions with the Ministry of Health, the Health Research Council, ESR and advisors to the Prime Minister around diagnostics and vaccine development, helping ensure New Zealand is contributing to the global fight against COVID-19 in the most effective way possible. We will continue to update you on our role in this space.

But we also remain absolutely committed to fulfilling the promise of our core research programmes around cancer, asthma and allergy and infectious diseases. While we have had to make changes to our operations due to the lockdown, desk research continues, and – as an essential service – our scientists continue to run essential experiments so that we do not lose the momentum our supporters have given us over many years.

Our clinical work in the ENABLE CAR T-cell trial and hookworm clinical study progresses with some adjustments to accommodate the situation. Recruitment and patient treatment for our CAR T-cell trial is currently on hold, but this is not preventing progress in the wider CAR T-cell programme. Our core facilities also continue to operate, including our Biomedical Research Unit, ensuring we can not only maintain our core research but are ready to respond and contribute to vaccine testing and development here in New Zealand as needed.

Over the last few weeks we have received many encouraging messages and donations. The value of this support is immense. It not only enables us but motivates each and every one of us here at the Institute to continue the important work we are doing and to rise to the challenges ahead.

As I said in my previous update, while these times are tough, this is just a virus, nothing more nor less. The immune system is incredibly powerful at finding a way to deal with pathogens. Keep smiling, and continue to look after yourselves and others.