‘Blown away’: Australian coronavirus researchers examine everything from breastfeeding to explosives technology | Australia news

More than 200 Australian studies into Covid-19 are under way, extending far beyond the search for a vaccine.

Almost every Covid-19 research project being led by Australians has been captured in a report published on Saturday, including studies of breastfeeding guidelines for parents with Covid-19, filter systems to remove the virus via air-conditioning systems, monitoring of sewage to detect the prevalence of Covid-19, and repurposing technology normally used to identify explosives to see if it can detect the presence of Covid-19.

The report was compiled by Research Australia, the national peak body for health and medical research.

It’s chief executive, Nadia Levin, said the report was not a complete catalogue of Covid-19 related research in Australia, but provided a useful insight into the scale of the response from the health and innovation sectors.

“All of this Australian research kept popping up and we were blown away by the scale and scope of it, so we asked all of our members to share what they are working on,” Levin told Guardian Australia.

“There is research occurring here people wouldn’t necessarily think about. We seem to hear about the vaccine research every day, but a whole lot of other essential pandemic and virus work is occurring. This is the first instance this research has been explained in one place and what we hope is it will help Australians to read beyond the headlines and have a real appreciation for our researchers here and their contribution to society.”

The research outlined in the report includes work at Bond University in Queensland to figure out what should be done if no vaccine is ever found, or if it takes several years to find one. It aims to map out a Plan B and identify some of the research required to establish how we can most effectively live with Covid-19 in the long term.

Researchers led by the University of Tasmania are working to identify those susceptible to Covid-19, and whether certain people are more capable of asymptomatic transmission. As part of the study they are examining whether smoking or vaping makes people more susceptible to the virus, and whether these activities can increase community transmission.

However, the report says the response of Australia’s health and medical researchers has come at a cost. The sudden “downing of tools” that happens when researchers are called upon to pivot towards an urgent pandemic throws existing projects, and their funding streams off course, the report says.

“When social distancing forces us out of our laboratories or prevents studies from progressing, it means experiments go cold and precious time and data is lost,” it says. “Like other parts of the economy, health and medical research is suffering. Without income from international students, university funding for health and medical research comes under threat. So too does the pipeline of research and researchers relied upon by Australians to safeguard their health.”

Research Australia’s next report will examine the impact of Covid-19 on health and medical researchers and the challenges they now face.

Dr Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at the Canberra Hospital and a professor at the Australian National University, says Australia is punching above its weight in Covid-19 research and science generally.

“When I’ve looked into the medical research Australia is doing, it is clear that proportionally we are doing more for the size of our population than even the US or most parts of Europe,” he says. “So it doesn’t surprise me that we have a lot of diverse research being done on Covid-19. Equally important as finding a vaccine is understanding what to do if a vaccine doesn’t work, how to prevent future pandemics, and what drugs may or may not work and why.”

Other important areas to understand include infection control techniques and the most effective use of face masks.

“This is not the sexy, cutting-edge stuff that vaccine research may seem to be, but it is equally, if not in some ways more, important,” Collignon says.

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