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High demand for Covid-19 research funding sees vital projects miss out

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Anti-virals and impact on vulnerable supported in emergency grants

The impact of Covid-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of New Zealanders, and development of antiviral agents and vaccination strategies, are areas of focus for projects given emergency funding announced today.

New Zealand’s largest independent medical research funder, the Auckland Medical Research Foundation, received requests for more than $3.38million of project grants, for its fast-tracked AMRF Covid-19 Research Fund. It accelerated the application process to ensure research can start immediately in response to the unprecedented need during this pandemic.

Naming the successful applicants only hours after they had been ratified by the AMRF Medical Committee, Sue Brewster, the Foundation’s Executive Director, said there was funding awarded to projects that look at the short and long-term impact of Covid-19, including the toll of isolation on youth and elderly people, and how health care workers’ wellbeing is impacted by being on the frontline. In addition, almost $100,000 will be invested in efforts to find anti-viral treatment for Covid-19 in New Zealand. Brewster revealed that AMRF was astounded that there were 42 applications for Covid-19 related research projects, however only six could be funded at this stage, with other vital projects missing out.

“The AMRF invested $500,000 for this extraordinary Covid-19 Research pool. This is emergency investment funding that is needed here and now and sits outside our usual average of approximately $3.5million invested each year,” Brewster explained.

“The AMRF Medical Committee was extremely impressed by the calibre of research the Principal Investigators and their teams want to undertake, and we believe the projects we are investing in will have pivotal impact here and globally.

“There is a real demand for financial support for work that provides medical solutions for this virus and research-based insights into the toll Covid-19 will have on our society. However, given our finite pool of funds, the most challenging part of this process for our AMRF Medical Committee was the financial limitations in awarding this critical funding and there were many more projects that could make a significant difference, than there was available investment.”

AMRF will now be seeking public support and donations to ensure more vital research projects can be awarded funding, to provide research grants to fund crucial findings and insights into the unique way the country has responded to, and tackled, Covid-19 compared to other countries.

“Early indications are that New Zealand’s lockdown processes have stemmed the spread of Covid-19 far faster than other countries and projects around the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on people’s general health will help shape the way we support people during other crises in future.

“We are investing in a project that will harness work already undertaken to find treatments for Covid-19, and what we learn will significantly benefit us and also feed into the global search for treatments,” Brewster added. “AMRF is proud to be able to play a role in treatments and care for generations to come.”

Open to research led by principal investigators based in the Auckland/ Northland region assisted by nationwide teams, Brewster noted that none of the applications were duplicating projects funded by the Health Research Council earlier this month – illustrating the breadth of research being undertaken in New Zealand.

“New Zealand’s response and results of Covid-19 are changing rapidly and now is the time to harness the knowledge so we learn all we can about the pandemic and make sure our country is prepared for when there is a next time.”


AMRF Covid-19 Research Fund recipients:

Social connectedness among older people during Covid-19 – Professor Merryn Gott, University of Auckland, School of Nursing

Professor Gott has been awarded $98,257 to research the mental health impact of isolation on the elderly. Professor Gott is partnering with Age Concern and the Ministry of Health to immediately inform their work.

“Older people have been identified as the group most vulnerable to Covid-19 and subject to particular restrictions. However whilst this strategy will hopefully protect them physically, the potential for a second wave of harm relating to increased levels of social isolation and loneliness has been identified,” the University of Auckland Nursing professor says.

“Loneliness has a similar impact on health as smoking or obesity. Our findings will place the voices and experiences of culturally-diverse older people at the centre of public health responses to Covid-19.”


Examining the short and long-term mental health consequences of the lockdown to contain Covid-19 – Associate Professor Danny Osborne, & Professor Chris Sibley, University of Auckland School of Psychology

These researchers have been awarded $81,878 to use data they have already amassed as part of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) and redirect their focus into understanding the short and long term mental health consequences of lockdown while identifying the vulnerable groups who will likely need additional resources.

“By leveraging data from NZAVS, and collecting data in the weeks and year after New Zealand’s unprecedented lockdown, we have the unique ability to examine changes within the same people over time,” Associate Professor Osborne says.

“We will likely move between various levels of lockdown over the next 18 months. Understanding the effects of strict social distancing on people’s mental wellbeing is essential for fostering healthy psychological functioning.

“This will place us at the forefront of literature on the psychological effects of pandemics and help us become global leaders in our research area.”

Associate Professor Osborne’s sister is a registered nurse on the frontline of patient care in Los Angeles, and his wife is a clinical psychologist providing teletherapy in Auckland during lockdown. Co-investigator Professor Sibley’s wife is a GP working in the community. So the pandemic is an issue very close to their hearts.


Whitu: 7 ways in 7 days – randomised controlled trial of a coping skills app to support the emotional wellbeing of young people during the Covid-19 pandemic – Dr Anna Serlachius & Dr Hiran Thabrew, University of Auckland, Psychological Medicine

Both mental health professionals, these researchers believe up to one million New Zealand young people aged 16 to 30 could benefit from an app that provides seven learning modules over a week. The modules provide coping mechanisms to tackle anxiety and depression.

Prior to Covid-19, New Zealand young people – especially those of Maori and Pacific ethnicity – experienced high rates of mental distress, and the country has the worst suicide rate (19.3 per 100,000 young people and 36.4 per 100,000 Maori) among OECD nations, Dr Anna Serlachius explains.

“Recent stresses related to rapid lockdown, physical isolation, disrupted academic routines and financial insecurity are likely to exacerbate pre-existing mental health issues and generate new ones.”

With $98,281 in funding, the team will collaborate with mental health, e-health, Maori and Pacific Island researchers, on a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary project.


Covid-19 impact on nurse wellbeing: Identification, sustainability and mitigation – Dr Matthew Roskruge, Massey University, Massey Business School

Taking a clinical standpoint, Dr Roskruge has been awarded $31,494 to investigate how the nursing workforce is managing in the crisis and what measures are needed to sustain an already-pressured sector of healthcare. “Nurses are working on the front lines and experiencing the risks and vulnerabilities not only to themselves but also their whanau. Serious mental health consequences such as anxiety and depression may result, harming wellbeing and undermining our health system,” he says. An emerging health economist, he will work with two internationally recognised researchers who are former frontline nurses, and aims to “change the way we value and support our nurses” and address workforce sustainability with resilience strategies for nursing staff and their employers.


Stapled ACE2 alpha-helical peptides as SARS-CoV-2 spike protein blockers and virus entry inhibitors – Distinguished Professor Margaret Brimble, University of Auckland, School of Chemical Sciences & Dr Alan Cameron, University of Auckland, School of Biological Sciences

The professor and doctor were awarded $96,457 to investigate whether existing patents for chemical manufacturing technology could be used to develop an effective anti-viral treatment for Covid-19.

“We already hold patents for the chemical manufacturing technology we plan to use. This is an excellent opportunity to put New Zealand research in the global spotlight,” said Professor Brimble.

“While vaccine development is essential, this is predicted to take 18 months. Even if New Zealand successfully manages to avert the crisis through Government-enforced lockdown procedures, the country remains at significant threat from a second wave of outbreaks.

“Effective anti-viral treatments are essential for the health and well-being of New Zealanders, particularly those of our most-at-risk demographics.”

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