Continuing the fight against COVID-19
In the third year of the pandemic, the University of Melbourne forged ahead on vaccine development and discovery, making critical contributions to the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 and supporting recovery efforts through medical interventions, policy responses and community education initiatives.
As Australia learned to live with COVID-19 and lockdowns eased in 2022, University of Melbourne researchers focused on optimising safety in the transition back to physical workplaces.
The BREATH project, led by the City of Melbourne in partnership with the University and Cbus Property, found that simple changes to ventilation systems significantly decreased the transmission of COVID-19, protecting office workers while also reducing energy consumption in buildings.
The Medihood ‘McMonty’, a personal ventilation hood for use in hospitals, was developed in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic by Professor Jason Monty from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology and Associate Professor Forbes McGain from Western Health. The McMonty was recognised with two significant awards in 2022: the MTPConnect award for the Most Substantial Impact in the Australian Health Sector, and the WorkSafe Victoria Workplace Health and Safety Solution of the Year. The device, developed to significantly reduce risks of COVID-19 transmission in hospitals, has since been adopted for use in other clinical areas such as coronary care, dialysis and respiratory care.
With COVID-19 infections remaining high, the University’s VaxFACTS website, hosted by Professor Margie Danchin from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, continued to be a trusted source of information for the community. New videos covered the flu and COVID-19 vaccines and provided advice on vaccination for children.
Developed during the first year of the pandemic, the Medihood ‘McMonty’ was designed to contain transmission of COVID-19 in hospitals and has since been adopted for use in other clinical settings. Image: Penny Stephens
Across the year, the University’s medical researchers continued to investigate ways to combat the virus, assessed the impacts of existing vaccines, and explored the potential for new vaccines and treatments. The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity secured a landmark agreement with Moderna.
The agreement facilitated access to Moderna’s mRNA Access program and will rapidly accelerate vaccine testing for a range of infectious diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis and Japanese encephalitis.
Associate Professor Lisa Hui from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences led a study showing no increase in congenital abnormalities or foetal growth restriction in women who were vaccinated during pregnancy, and furthermore that these women had fewer preterm births and stillbirths than those who were unvaccinated.
Researchers from the Doherty Institute, including Dr Jennifer Juno from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, showed that the human body’s T cells provide long-lasting memory against the virus following vaccination or infection from COVID-19. Dr Juno’s research also discovered that vaccination boosted the levels of these T cells by up to 30 times.
The University of Melbourne, together with Monash University, received $5.4 million from the Victorian Government to establish the Victorian mRNA Innovation Hub to develop next-generation mRNA vaccines and therapeutics to fight diseases.
Researchers also extended their findings to the wider issue of pandemic preparedness generally. This included establishment of the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics to ensure resilience against future pandemics.
Associate Professor Nic Geard and Dr Cameron Zachreson from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology led development of an epidemiological simulation model to help improve future border quarantine practices, both in Australia and internationally.
University researchers including Professor David Nisbet from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, considered ways to prevent spread of the virus through surface transmission, contributing to development of a first-of-its-kind permanent sprayable coating to repel viruses and bacteria. They also incorporated materials in the coating that can kill pathogens through an air-filled barrier.
Research was conducted to examine the effects and outcomes of lockdowns and public health measures introduced in earlier years of the pandemic. The University’s Future of Work Lab published a report, led by Dr Peter Ghin from the Faculty of Business and Economics, revealing significant changes to working patterns in regional Victoria since the onset of COVID-19.
Reflecting greater geographic mobility and workplace flexibility afforded by remote working arrangements, the study showed that people who migrated to regional Australia during COVID-19 were more likely to retain metro-based employment rather than transfer their skills into the regional workforce.
A study co-authored by Professor Mark Wooden and Dr Esperanza Vera-Toscano from the Faculty of Business and Economics showed that, due to the incidence and length of lockdowns in 2020, Victorian women experienced greater mental health decline compared to the rest of Australia, with negative impacts more severe for women in couples, women with children under 15,
and those living in flats or apartments.
In December, findings from the latest HILDA Survey (Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia) were released, revealing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Australian households. HILDA, conducted by the Melbourne Institute, is the country’s only nationally representative longitudinal household study following the same group of Australians over their lifetimes. The latest report uses data up until 2020. It showed that inequality declined significantly in Australia with the largest fall in the survey’s 20-year history, as governments provided unprecedented emergency income support and other measures to respond to the growing pandemic. The results offer important insights into the levels and impact of assistance Australia provides to the most vulnerable members of society.
Banner image: Forging ahead with vital work in vaccine development and discovery, the University of Melbourne, together with Monash University, received $5.4 million from the Victorian Government to establish the Victorian mRNA Innovation Hub to develop next-generation mRNA vaccines and therapeutics to fight a range of diseases and conditions. Image: Supplied