Australia

Hopes $400 million government health fund will boost coronavirus research, restart clinical trials

Vivek Singha (R) and his son Kushagra Source: SBS News

The federal government has announced a $400 million program to fund new treatments for serious health conditions. It's hoped the funding can restart some of the clinical trials put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic.

Australian researchers are set to benefit from $400 million in federal funding for the discovery of new treatments for serious health conditions, including mental health and infectious diseases.

The funding, announced on Wednesday by Health Minister Greg Hunt, will see 237 new projects backed by the National Health Research Council and a further 30 through the Medical Research Future Fund.

Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University, applied for a grant to help further his research into influenza vaccines last year.

Professor Allen Cheng
Professor Allen Cheng
SBS

While the coronavirus pandemic was not an issue when Prof Cheng applied for the grant, he said his new $1.7 million would help in the fight against the virus.

“My work is mainly in influenza, but clearly it’s very relevant to COVID-19,” Prof Cheng said.

“The system I’m involved with is already monitoring for cases of COVID and we’re able to evaluate any vaccine that might come out after it’s deployed to see how effective it is.”

Mr Hunt said all projects successful in obtaining a grant were "of immense importance to the lives of Australians".

“While we are dealing with COVID-19, we are also dealing with all of the challenges of Australians,” he said.

Hopes for boost of clinical trials

The funding boost has been welcomed by those living with rare chronic health conditions.

Seven-year-old Kushagra Singha is one of only 20 people in Australia with FOXG1 syndrome – a rare neuro-developmental disorder characterised by seizures, and inabilities to control body movements and speak.

His father Vivek is determined to find a cure for his son’s condition and believes a clinical trial could be the best shot.

Vivek Singha (L) and his son Kushagra
Vivek Singha (L) assist his son Kushagra with the help of a support worker
SBS News

Mr Singha said while the coronavirus outbreak has slowed progress on many non-COVID-19 research programs, such as those looking at FOXG1, he can see a silver lining to the situation.

"A lot of research built up over a number of years is being put on freeze for a long time, but at the same time the opportunity in this whole crisis is that everybody realises the importance of genetic research," he said.

“The more we can share the importance of people participating in clinical trials is good. The more people who sign up and participate [in trials] puts the researchers and doctors in a better place to do the best for us.”

Mr Singha is one of a growing number of people who've signed up for HealthMatch, a platform connecting Australian patients with clinical trials.

Manuri Gunawardena
HealthMatch co-founder and CEO Manuri Gunawardena
Twitter

The company's chief executive, Manuri Gunawardena, said there has been a 20 per cent rise in applications this year from people wanting to help find treatments for COVID-19 and other conditions.

“We’ve seen a huge focus with clinical trials in the context of COVID-19, but we have also seen an increase in signups for other condition areas, like mental health and chronic conditions,” she said.

“It’s been good to see Australians putting their hand up to participate in research."

Ms Gunawardena said the government's $400 million package would help get clinical trials back underway and ultimately help people like the Kushagras.

“We will see more medical research and more clinical trials, which will help the sector,” she said.

“It will be great to help people like Vivek and his son and other patients suffering from chronic conditions with increased access to clinical trials and programs.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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