Bio21 Guest Message: Professor Ary Hoffmann – 19 June 2020 - A COVID-19 Experience

In late January with a sense of dread, I noted the detection of COVID-19 in Australia. In February, I attended a scheduled meeting in Singapore with the Dengue Expert Advisory Panel; my last overseas trip since the travel ban. With Covid-19 starting to spread across the globe, I had to weigh up the risks of exposure to myself, and likely quarantine on returning to Australia, in order to participate in a meeting about a more well understood, but also very serious pandemic. Based on my experience, I felt assured that in that region, practices for managing pandemics are well rehearsed and culturally embraced. My temperature was recorded every time I entered a government building or research facility, as well as most public spaces and transit hubs. It was apparent that the Singaporeans were managing the situation well—with masks, social distancing and hand-washing being conscientiously practiced everywhere. As I watched our government initially hesitate about border closures, the handling of people returning from overseas, and pushing ahead with necessary lockdowns and public awareness, I wondered if Australia could respond as effectively as Singapore in the absence of collective living memory of a pandemic.

As the various stages of shutdowns started in March, we were in a situation of significant uncertainty about how COVID-19 would affect us all in Australia. The experiences overseas, and deeper implications of epidemiological modelling were alarming, but we had no certainty how the situation would evolve here.

Fortunately, Bio21 was well organized prior to the shutdown. At the beginning of March my lab managers were invited to a Business Continuity meeting, with an agenda planning for scenarios ranging from relatively minor disruptions, through to the shutdown we have all now experienced. This meeting was not only timely, it was a step ahead of the rest at a time where myriad confusing messages were coming from the federal and state governments, the media, and even within university departments and institutes.

Because our research falls under the ‘essential’ categories of global health and food biosecurity, we were able to continue core activities, allowing us to maintain our irreplaceable insect cultures, and monitor some long-term experiments. Thanks to the forward planning prompted by the Business Continuity team, we developed detailed plans around maintaining essential activities while practicing social distancing and a safe laboratory practices. One such measure we implemented early was to isolate our key staff from each other based on their technical skills, providing a measure of redundancy should a member contract COVID-19. We strategically delayed some experiments and rushed generating data sets so that people had productive work to do from home.

We have of course lost the ability to discuss and share ideas directly with our colleagues in the usual settings. I suspect most of us are growing tired of endless online meetings where exchanging ideas can tend to get bogged down, and the inevitable glitches as we adapt to the technology. Still, I see some benefits of online meetings involving small groups of people. When chaired properly, they can balance input from a range of voices rather than being dominated by a few. Even larger meetings have run surprisingly smoothly – I particularly like the chat box approach to seminar questions, where all participants can clearly see what is being asked and this can fuel discussion. Perhaps the act of typing a question helps us arrive at something more eloquent.

Teaching remains quite challenging, particularly for larger lectures where a present audience can give more intuitive feedback as to whether key concepts have been understood. The University community has provided some useful support to assist our staff and students in developing skills in using such tools as well as maintaining a positive mental state in these challenging times.

I’ve been particularly impressed by the ability of my lab members to use online tools to remain connected and support each other. These include virtual morning teas and occasional game nights, as well as our regular lab meetings and active discussion groups.

Overall, I feel extremely fortunate that our group has demonstrated resilience and adaptability to keep the work going. Despite inevitable productivity losses, we’ve continued our broad research activities and exchange of ideas. With above-and-beyond support at Bio21, from the Business Continuity, Stores, Facilities and Security teams, we’ve been able to navigate a complex and rapidly changing scenario.

We’ve also been successful in maintaining many of our overseas interactions and activities, including joint data analyses and oversight of Wolbachia mosquito releases. But my epidemiological collaborators remind me that this is only the beginning, the start of the first wave as the virus spreads around the world. As the Premier regularly reminds us, working from home, international travel bans and other adjustments are here to stay for the moment. This means long term challenges in initiating new collaborations, exchanges of students, staff and skills globally.

One can perhaps hope there can be some positive outcomes of the pandemic. Perhaps an increased appreciation for research and STEM disciplines can result. Possibly an appreciation that we can live simpler lives with less waste, substantially reducing our carbon footprint.

The looming challenge of dealing with climate change will be much larger than COVID-19, requiring dramatic rethinking of how society operates, impacting society over generations. Some of my colleagues in the USA and Brazil are despairing about how we can meet this challenge, as their countries are being much more seriously affected by COVID-19. Yet for me there is hope; some nations have put scientifically informed decision making ahead of short-term economics, thereby achieving phenomenal results limiting COVID-19 cases and impacts. Let’s hope this can inspire other governments to follow suit.

Professor Ary Hoffmann
Laureate Fellow

Bio21 Group Leader

School of Biosciences, Faculty of Science