New institute to provide better tools for the next pandemic

A collaboration between the University of Melbourne, the Doherty Institute, and the Burnet has led to the creation of the Australian Institute for Infectious Disease (AIID).

Plans for the new facility were released late in June, and the co-chair of the AIID Project Steering Committee, Professor Jim McCluskey, told Cosmos that this $650 million dollar project will provide facilities that can allow Australia “to defend ourselves better from future pandemics.”

“[The last pandemic gave us] an evidence base rather than just wishful thinking,” McCluskey, who is also Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne told Cosmos.

“We knew what we needed. We knew what others in the UK and the US were able to do that we couldn’t.

“And we know these things would have enabled us to do a better job of protecting the community.”

The building in the heart of the University of Melbourne’s biomedical precinct in the inner north, will house one of the largest high containment PC3 lab facilities in the Southern Hemisphere and a high containment animal facilities.

PC3 or physical containment 3 is the second highest facility for a microbiology lab, with an airlock to the outside world, which allows researchers to study new viruses and other infectious disease agents.

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A design of the PC2 laboratory inside the AIID building. Credit: AIID

The AIID will also be home to a ‘clinical challenge facility’.

“That allows you to challenge patients with an infectious disease in order to be able to test your intervention,” says McCluskey.

“You can take 24 patients – give 12 the vaccine and 12 no vaccine, challenge them with the pathogen knowing that you’ve got treatments to rescue them.

“And you can get an answer in literally a month.”

The AIID is being funded with $400 million from the Victorian state government, with the other $250 million being provided by the three groups involves, as well as philanthropy.

The building will expand the Doherty Institute to add new state of the art facilities, as well as relocate the Burnet health research institute, all inside the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct.

“The infectious disease and immunology institute will be embedded within the university, with its social sciences and law and economics and engineering and other disciplines, which all came into play during the pandemic,” McCluskey adds.

Current timelines suggest the demolition of buildings currently on the site will take place in 2024, and building will begin in 2025, with work in the building not able to start until at least 2027.

“But there are already working groups between [Melbourne] University, the Doherty, and the Burnet,” says McCluskey.

“We’re networking to set up collaborations around key themes, so that we don’t wait till we have a building to have communities of practice in collaborative research.”

With the Federal government providing money in the last budget for the Australian Centre for Disease Control (CDC), there’s also questions for how the AIID could potentially work with the group when both are up and running in a few years’ time.

“The federal government have not settled on the model of the CDC – as to whether it would be a Canberra based team or whether they would go for a distributed model,” says McCluskey.

He believes that in a distributed model, there’s potential for the CDC to also be nearby to the AIID.

“Another model is to say, let’s have a CDC team cheek-by-jowl with people who are dealing with this every day,” he told Cosmos.

“Of course, in any model, we will work with them. But all we can say is we don’t think there’ll be facilities of this nature anywhere else in the country.”

When asked what other entities in the world are similar to what the AIID is hoping to be, McCluskey suggested big names like the Harvard School of Public Health, the CDC and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“We think it will be of that calibre,” he said.

“It really does create a centre that in its scale, critical mass, ambition, the quality of the work it does, and its integration is going to be up there with these fine places in other parts of the world in little, old Australia.”

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