CSIRO says workforce development is the key to preparing for the next pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic knocked $144 billion off Australia’s projected bottom line and has already cost over 13,000 Australians their lives, so how can we better prepare for the next one?

A new report by the CSIRO, “Strengthening Australia’s Pandemic Preparedness,” has looked into how we might prepare for the inevitable next pandemic and it says building and keeping a trained workforce is the key.

The Associate Director of CSIRO Futures, Greg Williams says vaccine development is one area the CSIRO report hopes to improve through national coordination.

“Currently, Australia’s manufacturing technologies for vaccines are limited, but the report suggests Australia enhances its small-scale vaccine development – around the level of clinical trial manufacturing – to diversify the kinds of vaccines we can research and develop,” says Williams.

He argues this would give Australia a strong first response to protect vulnerable populations, and help bolster early stage clinical trials – a strength of Australian research.”

Importantly, keeping some early manufacturing on Australian soil would also mean a workforce of vaccine developers who are trained and ready to develop tools to help fight a virus during a pandemic.

“Having a workforce ready to hit the ground running is really important. It can take months, if not years to build that kind of capability from scratch.”

“The concept of pandemic preparedness is one that is rife with market failures because of the fact that there’s an unknown period of time where we’re not in a pandemic, and that can be very hard from a business perspective”, Mr Williams added.

Building this capability through CDMOs (contract development and manufacturing organisations) means there is a commercial element that would help these organisations survive when there is no pandemic.

COSMOS QnA: Predicting the next pandemic

The report set out to develop 20 recommendations across six areas of science and technology to minimise the impact of pandemics around Australia.

A major theme which emerged was the recommendation to bolster Australia’s ability to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics in anticipation for pandemics.

For example, the report identified five viral families with the potential to cause pandemics that are poorly understood.

These virus families include Flaviviridae, which includes yellow fever and dengue fever; Orthomyxoviridae, the family that houses influenza viruses and of course coronaviridae, the family that contains COVID-19, SARS and MERS.

Dr Michelle Baker, lead of CSIRO’s Infectious Disease Resilience Mission in development says it is these viruses, on average, which are poorly understood and could catch us off-guard if we’re not prepared. “For some of these viruses we don’t have any therapeutic treatments to fight infection.”

However, national coordination in research and development could help this, Dr Baker said, including databases for virus families, better cell culture platforms and effective animal models for accurately studying viruses as they pop up.

The CSIRO report is an assessment of future ‘Disease X’ – an expected but currently unknown viral outbreak that could come next.

Williams says the report’s recommendations follow the “Swiss Cheese method.”

He says if you imagine layer upon layer of Swiss Cheese; each representing a different pandemic precaution or response, but of course each layer does have holes somewhere.

“The concept here being no single layer to pandemics is perfect on its own.

“But if you get enough of them and they’re robust, together, you can come up with quite a good defence platform against future pandemics.”

This article originally appeared in Science Deadline, a weekly newsletter from the AusSMC. You are free to republish this story, in full, with appropriate credit.

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