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Contributor: Professor David Murdoch, Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch and Board Member of the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation

It is no exaggeration to describe the past month or so in hyperbole. It’s been monumental. Global. Confronting. Unprecedented.

For many people, the world might feel like it has been upended. At the time of writing, at least a quarter of the world’s population is in lock-down, including every household in our island nation.

For those of us involved in research – and those of you who fund research – the current situation highlights a simple, unvarnished truth. Research is crucial. Understanding saves lives. Health challenges such as this novel coronavirus are not easy. To overcome them requires teams of experts working together to contribute their skill and knowledge acquired over many years.

The global research response to this pandemic has been immense. In January, Chinese scientists shared the genetic code of a newly discovered virus that causes a disease we now know as COVID-19. This enabled laboratories around the world, including a number in New Zealand, to develop a reliable, standardised test. This test is what New Zealanders are being given today, and the results of which are informing Government and their daily briefings to the public on the current state, and expected scale, of the pandemic. Researchers around the world are racing to develop vaccines and new treatments. In New Zealand, our researchers and academics have been advising the Government, producing models to predict the course of the pandemic, and playing a role in sharing their knowledge to explain the situation to the public.

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I’m an infectious disease doctor and researcher, and my particular interest is in respiratory infections. In the past month I have been involved in advising the Ministry of Health on the response to COVID-19, working with laboratories to establish testing for this disease, and talking to media and the public to help explain the rapidly-evolving situation and what it all means.

I’ve averaged over five media interviews every day over the past month. This includes local and international media. I’ve written opinion pieces and answered the public’s questions put to me though media about COVID-19 and what to do to keep themselves safe. Academics and scientists always have a responsibility to share their knowledge. But today it is even more important we communicate the complex in terms people can understand and relate to. Medical and epidemiological terms, such as flatten the curve, have now come into the public consciousness. That’s a good thing as people need to understand in order to play their part in saving the lives of our country’s most vulnerable. Never before have we needed collective action from the whole population more than now. 

Another silver lining likely to come out of this global pandemic is an increased awareness and appreciation of research. Let’s hope it also encourages an appreciation of the people who fund research. While Governments fund large projects, the majority of researchers (myself included) got their start with funding from smaller organisations and charities such as the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation (CMRF). My research career began as a University of Otago, Christchurch Summer Student during my medical school years. Every year for several decades, CMRF has funded many of our Summer Studentship projects.

Now as Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch, I see the careers of many young researchers being started by CMRF funding.  So as a CMRF Alumni, and on behalf of the young researchers who will make their mark in future, I would like to thank those of you who provide the financial backing that allows CMRF to help our work. Now more than ever, the value of this investment is evident.

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