The New Zealand science community's marshalling of resources in the ongoing fight against COVID-19 has been unprecedented, and, while there will no doubt be downstream consequences for research that was in progress and for proposals that were in the pipeline, there are also opportunities in a time of crisis.
The Medical Research Institute of New Zealand (MRINZ) will lead three clinical trials, to be funded by the Health Research Council, testing a variety of drugs for potential use in the coronavirus pandemic it was announced on 17 April.
"I applaud the HRC for funding these important, randomised clinical trials across the spectrum of COVID-19 disease severity, from mild disease through to critically ill patients admitted to the Intensive Care Unit," says MRINZ Director Professor Richard Beasley. "The clinical trials will assess multiple potential therapeutic agents including hydroxychloroquine, one of a number of drugs gaining media attention as a potential treatment for COVID-19. These grants recognise the importance of both international collaboration and the timely need to protect our healthcare workers on the frontline of this crisis."
On Friday 24 April, Malaghan announced they would be pushing ahead with work on a COVID-19 vaccine development programme in anticipation that the Government will announce a broader vaccine strategy, including research, pre-budget.
In a recent interview with the ODT, Malaghan Institute's Professor Graham Le Gros said there “are people shovel-ready to get stuck in. I didn’t wait for permission. We’re already doing it. We’ve got a great team actually going for it, and I hope we get permission eventually."
The move follows publication of an essay in the New Zealand Medical Journal calling for a national COVID-19 vaccine programme. More than 120 national and international scientists have signed their name to the paper.
In an interview on Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon show on 7 April, Executive director of the economic think-tank, Motu, Dr John McDermott, talks about his work with the data science team at the Asian macro-economic advisory firm, Wigram Capital Advisors.
The group's projections of what would have happened if the country had not gone into lockdown were cited by the Prime Minister in her briefing on Sunday 5 April.
John said the modelling was a complex process and most of the frameworks and models assume a single outbreak.
But he said that was not the situation being faced at the moment.
"We're facing a situation where there's multiple outbreaks, the data's contaminated, and you just have to do the best you can with the available information."
Cawthron scientists not required for essential services in the COVID-19 response have been keeping themselves busy with a new webisode series for budding young primary-school scientists. Science at Home has been developed to keep kids engaged and entertained during the national Covid-19 lock-down. Over the last few weeks Cawthron scientists have been posting videos with science-themed activities that kids can complete at home or in their backyard with a bit of adult assistance.
New videos are uploaded regularly to their website and social media channels. The scientists involved would love to see pictures and videos of children's efforts on their Facebook channel and they can answer any questions you might have about the activities.
BRANZ has assisted with developing new rules for working on construction sites under COVID-19 Alert Levels 2 and 3 to help keep builders and labourers safe at this time, and has developed guidelines on how to best assess the condition of a building site and materials which may have been exposed to the weather for the past couple of months. There are residential construction protocols and separate vertical and horizontal protocols for commercial and civil construction.
The metals-based industry research organisation HERA CEO Troy Coyle says that while COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the industry in the short-term she has identified several 'silver linings' for the industry going forward. These include a refocusing on domestic manufacturing, the upskilling of New Zealand's workforce, infrastructure development, a digital innovation strategy for when physical connection is restricted, and the realisation that flexible work arrangements don’t necessarily lead to reduced productivity.
Principal Scientist for Grapevine Improvement for the Bragato Research Institute Dr Darrell Lizamore writes about the lessons from COVID-19 that can be applied to plant genetics in a Stuff opinion piece.
BRI is driving the work to identify and provide vines with improved traits and resilience, enabling the protection and growth of the New Zealand wine industry for future generations.
"While no-one expects grapevines or the COVID-19 virus to evolve beyond recognition in our lifetimes, I can guarantee one thing. The DNA of all living things will continue to change, whether or not humans can see it, benefit from it, or are inconvenienced by it."
The New Zealand Institute for Minerals to Materials Research has the green light for a Vision Mātauranga Capability Fund proposal aimed at repurposing pounamu carving residue.
“Green to Gold – Understanding ourselves and our Māori partnerships through a pounamu lens” aims to explore the potential of repurposing by-products from the pounamu carving industry into 2nd Generation materials, such as 3D printed or injection-moulded products, or as a strategic additive for composite materials such as concrete.
Project lead Dr Nancy Garrity (Ngāti Pāoa and Ngāti Hine), a materials research scientist at NZIMMR, says the carving of pounamu generates a lot of dust and fine material. “Part of the kaitiakitanga (stewardship) train of thought is we like to use every part of a resource. We are looking to develop another material out of it.”
Beta-agonists have been used to treat asthma for thousands of years, originally in the Chinese herbal medicine ‘ma-huang’ (Ephedra equisetina). They have the ability to relax smooth muscle in the airways when it spasms or tightens, which makes breathing easier when asthma flares.
In the early 1900s, ephedrine and subcutaneous adrenaline (epinephrine) entered Western medicine as the first short‐acting beta agonists (SABA). The development of beta2‐selective SABA and the advent of metered dose inhalers in the 1950s laid the foundation for modern inhaled "beta agonist" therapy.
However, the team at the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand (MRINZ) recently published an article in Respirology outlining that while SABA were the first effective treatment for asthma, their importance in the contemporary management of asthma is diminishing.
Pre lockdown, The Dominion Post's Nikki Macdonald sat down with Malaghan Institute of Medical Research's Dr Rachel Perret to talk about what led a young French-speaking Christchurch girl into scientific research, and her work today leading the Institute's Freemasons New Zealand CAR T-cell Research Programme.
At Malaghan, Dr Perret is working on manufacturing artificial T-cell receptors, called chimeric antigen receptors (CAR), to use in ground-breaking cancer treatment.
"Perret says the hope is that the CAR T-cell receptor will be stronger than the natural version at latching on to and destroying the cancer. Part of her job will be to see if they can improve the effectiveness of the T-cells, and to see whether the concept can be extended to solid tumours.
"At present, the focus is on blood cancers, as they are easier for T-cells to target. Treating solid tumours would require teaching the T-cells better navigation skills."
On 16 April, the Ministry for the Environment released its Freshwater 2020 report on the health of our freshwater ecosystems and its findings are something we should all be concerned about, writes Cawthron Institute's Coastal and Freshwater General Manager Dr Roger Young.
"The report shows that New Zealand’s rivers, lakes, and wetlands, and the fish and other species that live in them, remain in a perilous state. Three quarters of our native fish species are at risk of extinction. While the health of some waterways is improving, more are declining, as shown by trends in the macroinvertebrate index (MCI). Based on the Trophic Lake Index (TLI), 46% of lakes assessed are in poor or very poor condition, including almost all North Island lakes."
As we prepared for working from home during the COVID-19 Lockdown response, Aqualinc Director of Research & Development Dr John Bright said that although the focus right now is understandably on fighting COVID-19, we can’t lose sight of some of the other issues facing our planet. March 22 was World Water Day, the theme for which is the inextricable link between water and climate.
Dr Bright says everyone has a role to play, and we can’t afford to wait. "In the short term, we are incredibly thankful that most New Zealanders have access to safe water supplies, which are crucial for hand-washing and limiting the spread of viruses."
A project to develop a hand-held, non-contact microwave medical scanner that images bone and tissue with sub-millimetre resolution provides a quicker and easier way to get medical images.
The device, being funded by Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and developed by Lincoln Agritech in collaboration with the Universities of Waikato, Auckland, and Nice-Sophia Antipolis in France; with linkages to hospitals in Auckland, Christchurch, and Nice, is aimed at point-of-care use in both clinical and emergency medicine.
Lincoln Agritech research scientist Dr Kim Eccleston recently presented papers by the team on the science behind the microwave lens, at the heart of the scanner, at two international microwave conferences. Image: Lincoln Agritech.
The finished 25kg stainless steel building node designed to mount three angled timber columns to a concrete pad, as part of a pavilion type structure. Image: TiDA.
TiDA, the metallurgy and 3D printing research organisation that introduced New Zealand to 3D metal printing, has recently produced New Zealand’s largest metal part 3D printed as a single piece.
The 25kg stainless steel building node is 430mm tall by 450mm wide and designed to mount three angled timber columns to a concrete pad, as part of a pavilion type structure. It can carry over five tonnes per column with a 4:1 safety factor.
TiDA CEO Dr Mike Fry says recent developments in Wire Arc Additive Manufacture (WAAM) have made practical and cost effective the 3D printing of large metal parts from one to over 250kg.
“Historically 3D printing has been restricted to polymer components and smaller scale high-value metal items. This isn’t the case anymore. The technology is literally changing the face of architectural fabrication."
New Deep South National Science Challenge research by Motu Economic and Public Policy Research shows that EQC should plan for up to 25% higher future payouts for weather-related damage.
Weather-related hazards have already cost the EQC $450 million in (inflation adjusted) payouts since 2000.
New research by Jacob Pastor-Paz, Ilan Noy, Isabelle Sin, Abha Sood, David Fleming-Munoz, and Sally Owen has found that climate change, and the expected increase in intensity and frequency of extreme weather-related events, is likely to translate into higher damages and thus an additional financial liability for the EQC.
In addition, New Zealand’s population, and its residential building stock value, has been steadily growing over the past few decades. Suggesting that future liabilities may be even higher than the team have predicted based on climate change scenarios.
The University of Waikato is partnering with PlantTech Research in Tauranga as part of a broader scheme of initiatives that aim to build on its growing reputation as an academic leader in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
As part of the university’s evolving relationship with PlantTech, there are plans to award adjunct status to staff at PlantTech so that they can be involved in co-supervision of postgraduate students.
“Precision horticulture is an area of mutual interest but eventually this could extend to other areas, especially as they relate to systems that involve computer vision in some way – biosecurity applications through to underwater surveillance for example," says Professor Geoff Holmes from the University of Waikato’s Tauranga campus.
Motu data scientist labels turning point in NZ's COVID-19
RNZ Nine to Noon. Executive director of the economic think-tank, Motu, Dr John McDermott, is leading the data science team at the Asian macro-economic advisory firm, Wigram Capital Advisors.
The group's projections of what would have happened if the country had not gone into lockdown were cited by the Prime Minister.
How close are we to stamping out Covid-19 - and is that even possible?
TVNZ's Seven Sharp asks Professor Graham Le Gros from the Malaghan Institute how close we are to stamping out Covid-19 - and if it's even possible.
"This is a tricky little virus, it's very hard to stamp out ... we've just got it at such a level we can do this effectively and keep our communities and people basically safe - until we get a vaccine."
IRANZ is an association of independent research organisations. Its members undertake scientific research, development or technology transfer. Members include Aqualinc Research Ltd, Bragato Research Institute, BRANZ, Cawthron Institute, CRL Energy Ltd, Heavy Engineering Research Association (HERA), Leather & Shoe Research Association (LASRA), Lincoln Agritech Ltd, Mackie Research, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, Medical Research Institute of New Zealand (MRINZ), Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, New Zealand Institute of Minerals to Materials Research, PlantTech Research Institute, Titanium Industry Development Association Ltd (TiDA Ltd), Transport Engineering Research NZ Ltd (TERNZ), WSP Opus Research, and Xerra Earth Observation Institute.