At the time of writing, eight new projects had been funded through the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute (FHMRI), including the further refinement of diagnostic tools, the development of antibiotic strategies for reducing the duration of invasive mechanical ventilation, and the creation of 3-D printed facial guards to protect frontline workers.
Many more important projects—from the medical to the psychosocial—are also seeking funding, including the follow investigations:
- The influence of climatic and environmental factors, such as temperature and humidity, on viral spread—an increasingly important consideration as social restrictions ease.
- The consequences of the 30% decrease in visits to the Flinders Medical Centre (FMC) Emergency Department during the height of the pandemic for non-COVID-19-related conditions, and how we can better address emergency care during future health crises.
- The relationship and impacts of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in COVID-19 mortality and recovery rates.
- Telehealth “virtual hospital” models that offer effective pathways for the longer-term recovery of elderly patients discharged from hospital into social isolation.
- The health and wellbeing impacts for refugees and asylum seekers, who typically have worse health than the general population as well as higher health stressors caused by vulnerabilities in employment, housing and financial security.
- Addressing the short and long-term consequences of the enormous social and economic dislocation resulting from public health measures.
- Women’s consumption of alcohol during COVID-19 and its longer-term implications for significant health risks such as breast cancer.
Pivotal to all of this research is the creation of FORCE: the Flinders cORonavirus CollectivE, a collaboration between the University and Southern Adelaide Local Health Network (SALHN), bringing together clinical and research expertise across Adelaide to establish a South Australian COVID-19 virtual patient registry and biobank.
This platform collates information on all South Australians who tested positive for COVID-19 and is an essential resource for researchers. It will enable the rapid generation of local knowledge, while providing an evidence basis for the characterisation of COVID-19 in South Australia—including spread, severity and survival—also adding to national and global understanding of the virus.
Professor Claire Roberts, Matthew Flinders Fellow in the College of Medicine and Public Health, heads up the team responsible for managing FORCE.
“Because we know so little about this virus, we need to go right back to basics. One of the aims of the registry is to characterise people who have had mild or severe disease, compared to those who have died,” she says.
“The other key objective is to provide a data resource for researchers,” says Dr Erin Morton, Manager of Health Data Science and Clinical Trials in the College of Medicine and Public Health, and Liaison and Project Manager for FORCE. “It means they can focus right in on their research without needing to reinvent the wheel every time.”
COVID-19 has galvanised health organisations and governments like never before to respond quickly and collaboratively to this global threat.
“It has been incredibly unifying in the health and medical areas—not only at Flinders, but across the state and internationally. We have to pull together to beat this thing,” says Professor Roberts.
From initial conversations to establish FORCE, there has been intense state-wide interest, with over 100 people participating in one of the early Zoom conferences to plan its outline.
“The collaboration has been phenomenal,” says Dr Morton. “So many people are interested in what we are doing and want to be involved.
“We have never initiated a registry this quickly—FORCE broke all our previous speed records in setting this up. But Flinders University has a long and strong reputation for running registries of this nature. We have the know-how to develop and work with this.”
Flinders is also strongly positioned to undertake the highly interdisciplinary and collaborative research COVID-19 demands with our recent launch of three new research institutes: FHMRI, the Caring Futures Institute, and Órama Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing.
Between them, these institutes bring together epidemiological research and clinical practice, self-care literacy and patient-centred care, and the intersection of psychology, education and community wellbeing, also supported by the award-winning Medical Device Research Institute at our Tonsley campus.
Because COVID-19 becomes more severe and potentially fatal with comorbidities such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, it is especially important that individuals with knowledge and expertise across a range of conditions and clinical treatments participate in collaborative research.
Professor Roberts, for example, an expert in the area of pregnancy, is collaborating with other members of the Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand to investigate the impacts on pregnant women hospitalised with COVID-19.
“With the H1N1 virus in 2009, pregnant women made up 10 per cent of the cases but 50 per cent of the deaths. When you are pregnant, your immune system doesn’t respond in the same way to viral threats. But we haven’t had enough published data yet to say whether pregnant women are more or less at risk with COVID-19,” she says.
“Where we have a lot of data on comorbidity—how they interact together and with COVID-19, plus what medications people are taking and how these also interact—it’s an opportunity for researchers to answer questions from many different angles. FORCE is a really amazing tool to facilitate that,” says Dr Morton.
While the worst may appear to be over for South Australia’s active COVID-19 cases, FORCE will also help support research into the longer-term health complications already arising for COVID-19 patients considered to have recovered.
And it will help inform our response to future pandemic crises.
“This will not be the last pandemic we have. Any information we get, locally, national, internationally, is going to help prepare us for the future. Irrespective of the numbers, research will enable us to provide better treatment, better healthcare and better mobilisation of healthcare,” Professor Roberts says.
“We were able to buy precious time in Australia through lockdown—this was critically important. Now we must ask the questions, how do we ramp up the health system to be even more responsive in future?”
Flinders University is committed to doing research in areas of high relevance for the communities we serve, including rapid response to emergency situations such as COVID-19.
You can support vitally important research such as the above by giving to the Flinders University Research Fund.