COVID-19 vaccines, countering anti-science messaging and the ‘unknowns’. The experts look ahead at Australia’s coronavirus response

Before 2020, even Mary-Louise McLaws’s closest friends didn’t understand what she did for a living.

Just “going off around the world to do stuff” was how they described her regular jaunts around the world, speaking at conferences as an outbreak control epidemiologist and World Health Organization advisor.

But this year, that all changed.

In 2020, epidemiology became an Australian lounge room hobby. Reading COVID case data trends was a daily event.

And because of this our scientists — perhaps for the first time ever — were given more prominence than sports stars or celebrities.

In 2020, science had the spotlight.

“I had people on my street who’ve known me for 20 years say ‘I saw you on the TV — so that’s actually what you do’?,” Professor McLaws told the ABC.

A woman in a black shirt with a blue wall as background
Mary-Louise Mclaws said COVID had shown the “collective wisdom and kindness” of the Australian population.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“Before 2020, if we spoke about a topic like mathematical modelling and outbreak control their eyes might have glazed over.

“But now, of course, they’re interested.

“But I think, for me, the most heartening thing has been that the Australian public has listened — and they’ve responded.”

In hundreds of zoom interviews with media in Australia and across the world, Professor McLaws has become a common sight for anyone keeping watch on COVID-19.

With her thick black-rimmed glasses and blue wall background in her home office — what she describes as a “happy colour” — the epidemiologist has helped guide government decisions and informed millions of Australians.

This advice has come to the fore again as Australia anxiously monitors the Sydney’s Northern Beaches’ COVID-19 breakout.

A woman looking
Professor McLaws said she had “no idea” how many interviews she’d done.(ABC News:)

And although she won’t admit it herself, she — and hundreds of her colleagues — have saved many lives.

“I just try to look at the facts,” she said.

“Early on, it was pure outbreak management, this is what you do — don’t confuse the equation with the economy.

“And you just have to look at places like Sweden, or the UK, US [to see] this, in Australia it has been a team effort.

“We’ve been lucky, sure, but I think where we’re at shows how in Australia the population thinks of ‘we’ and not ‘me’ — the collective good.”

Professor McLaws is one of the more public faces of Australia’s scientific community.

But there are many like her, perhaps not as well-known, working behind the scenes.

Sharon Lewin knows this all too well.

Sharon Lewin
Professor Lewin said there were still many unknowns in the fight against COVID.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

As the inaugural director of Melbourne’s Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Professor Lewin oversees about 700 researchers and staff.

She said half of them dropped everything and swung on to coronavirus in late January when they realised “this is serious”.

“We had daily meetings for five months,” she said.

“We have the diagnostic [testing] labs, people on genetic sequencing, others fingerprinting the virus, and those developing the tests — they’re all working on it.

“Across the country, most research institutes have been like that.”

A woman with pictures behind her looking into the distance
Professor Lewin said all it took was “one case”, as was seen in Sydney.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

Professor Lewin, a world leader in infectious diseases, said she’d been left “ecstatic” by the public’s willingness to turn to science during 2020, and attributed it to Australia’s strong position.

But, like all her colleagues who spoke to the ABC, she emphasised that the COVID war was far from over.

She said all it took was “one case”, as the outbreak in Sydney highlighted.

“I think one of the things we’re used to in science is dealing with the unknown,” she said.

“But that uncertainty is very difficult for the public to digest, particularly when you ask them to do things that they don’t want to do.

“That’s challenging.

“And there are still unknows out there. But here in Australia, our biggest vulnerability right now is imported cases and the quarantine system.

“If something leaks out, we need those detection systems in place.

Surfers at a beach
Sydney’s Northern Beaches area is in lockdown until Wednesday following a COVID breakout.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

When the ‘science is silenced’

Like Professor McLaws, Raina MacIntyre has this year become one of Australia’s most recognisable scientific experts.

Seemingly unflappable during her hundreds of interviews, Professor MacIntyre, locked away at her home in suburban north-west Sydney, has developed a reputation as a no-nonsense commentator who cuts through the noise.

A woman in bushland looking away from the camera
Professor MacIntyre said there had been “anti-science messaging” in other countries.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

As an epidemiologist, world-leading infectious disease expert and head of biosecurity at Sydney’s Kirby Institute, she has essentially been training for three decades for a situation like COVID-19.

When asked by the ABC if she felt any pressure being flung into the public spotlight this year, she simply replied: “Not really. This is an area I know back to front.”

Typically, she said, hard lessons have been learnt this year.

And she was willing to say which ones — and who was to blame.

“It has been a pandemic of experts,” Professor MacIntyre said.

“There’s been a lot of people without any expertise in infectious diseases out there commentating on everything. And the public can’t differentiate between someone with a professor in front of their name.

“It’s a bit like aviation, you know.

“There’s ground staff, air traffic controllers, pilots, management, they’re all essential — but you wouldn’t get the air traffic controllers to fly the plane, would you?

“We’ve seen that a bit in the pandemic.”

A woman pictures in her office
Professor MacIntyre has spent countless hours in her home office.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Professor MacIntyre said the global situation showed how this could impact a country’s response — and when politicians failed to listen.

She highlighted the “chaotic response” in the UK and “anti-science messaging” in the US as a case in point.

“To see the most scientifically advanced and wealthiest country in the world [the US] fail catastrophically in pandemic control is a shock, it still is a shock,” she said.

“They didn’t have the leadership and the coordination.

“The science was silenced.”

A vaccine, 2021 and beyond

Following the first emergency rollouts of the Pfizer vaccine in the UK and the US, the science focus — and the gaze of the world — has undoubtedly turned to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Locally, the vaccine rollout was flipped on its head earlier this month when the University of Queensland (UQ) announced it was abandoning its candidate after it was found to elicit “false-positive” HIV test results.

It was one of the four vaccine candidates the Government had inked deals with, with a plan to roll out 51 million doses of the UQ vaccine now cancelled permanently.

The Government later announced it had locked in an additional 11 million doses of the Novavax vaccine and 20 million more doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being manufactured in Melbourne.

Yet, the science behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been described by some as “shaky”, with other experts believing that vaccine — which has efficacy of 62 per cent in its main dosing regime — will be relegated to the back of the queue as other vaccine candidates make their way towards the end of human trials.

Other experts have expressed concern about the long-term immunological effects of dosing with different vaccines, with Oxford-AstraZeneca indicating it may look to combine doses with vaccines such as Russia’s Sputnik V.

Professor MacIntyre believes Australia “needs to diversify” its vaccine deals with companies such as Moderna, which has 95 per cent efficacy, to achieve a goal of herd immunity.

“That’s the quickest route to herd immunity and complete economic recovery.”

Yet, highlighting the fact not all scientists agree, The Westmead Institute’s Professor Tony Cunningham, a vaccine expert of 40 years, believes the “wait-and-see” option is best, with none of the vaccines yet finished and data still to be released from their phase 3 trials.

An older man in a suit looking at a camera in his home environment.
The Westmead Institute’s Tony Cunningham said vaccine trials were moving “faster than I’ve ever seen before”.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Professor Cunningham said the lack of data meant it was still too early to tell whether the vaccines would work in older people and how they prevented spread.

“Sometimes you never know how good a vaccine is until the trials are finished, that’s happened to me with vaccines I’ve worked on,” Professor Cunningham said.

Almost serendipitously, the globally respected infectious diseases physician, clinical virologist and scientist gave a lecture this week summing up his career.

He told the ABC that not since the AIDS epidemic had scientists been flung into the public spotlight.

“There’s just been this feverish activity,” he said. “But I’d say COVID hasn’t been as overwhelming as HIV, but they’re rapidly different epidemics.

“But to have a COVID vaccine, multiple vaccines, after, what, six months? It is incredible what the scientific community has been able to achieve.”

For Professor Paul Young, the head of UQ’s vaccine team, the highs and lows of science have been all too real.

UQ Professor Paul Young wears glasses and a dark shirt and stares at the camera.
University of Queensland vaccine project co-leader Professor Paul Young.(ABC News Christopher Gillette)

The UQ team, with its molecular clamp technology, had been touted as one of the global frontrunners in the vaccine race.

Yet that all came crashing down. And quickly.

Speaking more than a week after the news was made public that the UQ team would have to abandon its vaccine — becoming one of the estimated 90 per cent of vaccine candidates that don’t make it past phase 3 trials — he said it was still devastating for the more than 100 researchers and staff involved.

“Many of them were working seven days a week, almost non-stop in shifts for months on end,” he told the ABC.

“It had a big impact on their families.”

Paul Young during the trial
Paul Young (c), said the UQ vaccine team would take a short break before reassessing the COVID situation next year.(AAP)

But, he said, they had been blown away by the community response both during its development program and since the COVID element was abandoned.

“Just for example, we had our local university coffee shop just plying us with coffee, they wouldn’t take any money from the team working on the vaccine,” he said.

“That’s just a little example of the kind of community support we were getting.

“We had 700 people, just from the UQ alumni, this week log into an hour-long webinar about the journey our team took developing the vaccine.

“It’s been extraordinary.”

‘Light at the end of the tunnel’

Back in her blue room, Mary-Louise McLaws said that despite the frantic work of the scientific community, there were far too many unknowns to predict when a post-COVID world would emerge.

A woman with black glasses up against a blue wall
Professor Mclaws says there are still many challenges ahead.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

She said there was light at the end of the tunnel, but that bright light “won’t be seen for a couple of years”.

“I’m sorry to say this, but COVID-safe behaviour needs to remain as normal behaviour until the whole world has a high level of coverage, until we can dampen the risk of transmission to a very, very low level,” she said.

“Even if we’re vaccinated, say we hop on a plane and we want to visit our friend overseas and we’re going to an area that has more infection than we have over here, then we might be at more of a risk of acquiring COVID.

“This is the post-battle activity.”

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