Between 1910 and 1970 there were four major infectious disease outbreaks. There have been five in the past decade alone, the report notes.
One of the five virus families highlighted by the report, Coronaviridae is responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic. Five new coronaviruses have jumped into humans in the past 20 years.
Flaviviridae and Togaviridae viruses are often spread by mosquitoes, and include dengue fever, chikungunya fever, and Japanese encephalitis – which was detected for the first time in Australia this year, when it took five lives.
Orthomyxoviridae viruses include all the strains of influenza. But it is highly lethal Paramyxoviridae viruses such as hendra that are perhaps our closest geographical threat.
Hendra was first spotted in 1994 after an outbreak in Brisbane. The virus spreads from flying foxes into horses and then into humans, and has so far killed four people.
The CSIRO discovered last year the virus had mutated and produced a new variant – known as hendra-2 – which has now taken up residence in grey and red flying foxes. The virus was also found in a horse near Newcastle last year, the furthest south it has been seen.
Antivirals such as Paxlovid can effectively treat people with COVID-19, but they took more than two years to be approved in Australia. The report argues that work to produce broad-spectrum antivirals for high-risk viruses must start now.
Research should also start on tools to test for a broad range of viral illnesses. A database of existing drugs that could possibly be repurposed as treatments should be set up, the report says.
A key theme running through the report is the need for better co-ordination between the state and federal governments. Britain, for example, was able to link several hospitals together to run huge and effective clinical trials.
“That’s almost impossible in Australia,” said Nobel laureate immunologist Professor Peter Doherty. Australia ran piecemeal trials that achieved little. “We need a much more national system.”
The report was “excellent, necessary and certainly hits Australia’s gaps,” said Dr Katie Woolaston, a pandemic expert at the Queensland University of Technology. But in addition to improving the science, Australia needs to work on “deep prevention”, she said – stopping wildlife trade, increased farming and the climate crisis, all of which are increasing the pandemic threat.
Minister for Science Ed Husic said the government would respond to the CSIRO report “in due course”.
“We have already started this work, backing in Moderna’s mRNA vaccine production facility in Melbourne. And we are committed to develop this capability further.”
Liam Mannix’s Examine newsletter explains and analyses science with a rigorous focus on the evidence. Sign up to get it each week.