A new global centre will be set up in Australia to develop a drug breakthrough equivalent to mRNA vaccine technology for the next pandemic.
Canadian and New Zealand businessman Geoffrey Cumming, who lives in Melbourne, is donating $250 million to establish the centre at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Parkville.
The philanthropic donation, to be made over 25 years, is the largest to medical research in Australia’s history and the centre will be named in his honour.
It aims to lessen the fallout of future pandemics and create greater resiliency internationally in the decades ahead.
“We’re trying to provide protection for Australia, for the world. We will have more pandemics,” Mr Cumming told reporters on Wednesday.
The centre will rapidly develop, test, and commercialise new treatments for infectious diseases, getting therapeutics to the community within months of a pandemic outbreak.
An effective pandemic response requires both vaccines and treatments, but innovation in antipathogen therapeutics has lagged in comparison with vaccines, Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin said.
Prof Lewin will serve as the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics’ inaugural director.
“We’re not going to be a drug company,” she said.
“We plan to do the hard work of basis science; new technologies that one day might be the mRNA of therapeutics.”
In the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, $137 billion was publicly invested globally in vaccines, compared to $7 billion in therapeutics, she said.
Drugs to combat coronaviruses and influenza will be the centre’s main focus initially, but Prof Lewin said researchers would seek to create “platform technologies” akin to mRNA that are interchangeable across different viruses.
“No one had monkeypox on their list of viruses with pandemic potential, and here we are with a new pandemic essentially emerging on our shores and we have one antiviral,” she said.
“We want to be pathogen agnostic.”
The centre will initially be based in the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, before moving to the new $650 million Australian Institute for Infectious Disease, which is expected to open in 2027.
It plans to recruit international experts to Victoria and for 30 per cent of the funds to be shared outside of the Doherty among other Australian and global research institutes.
The Victorian government has also committed $75 million over 10 years to the project, which is expected to create more than 200 long-term jobs.
Premier Daniel Andrews said Melbourne was the obvious choice for a global centre in Australia.
“When we think of great cities of the world and science … we think of London, Oxford, Boston and we think of Melbourne,” he said.
Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said the coalition will proceed with its pledge to open a $400 million infectious disease response centre if it wins the November election.
Callum Godde and Cassandra Morgan
(Australian Associated Press)