Increased instances of community transmission of COVID-19 – across four states in the past three months – has prompted CSIRO to adopt a flexible approach to the organisation’s return to sites plan; including closing workplaces to staff completely (other than approved exemptions) for short periods to comply with public health orders.
Meanwhile, an expert panel has briefed all employees on the contribution of CSIRO research to the vaccine program and what to expect over coming months.
While the responses have varied across jurisdictions, in the main most of the State Government’s facing recent outbreaks of coronavirus in the community have moved swiftly in tightening restrictions to allow for increased testing and more effective contact tracing.
The detection of a single community case of COVID-19 in Perth earlier this month led to a five-day lockdown while increased cases in Melbourne has resulted in the imposition of ‘circuit breaker’ measures across Victoria until at least mid-week.
In response, CSIRO temporarily moved most Western Australian workplaces to Phase 1 of the Return to Sites plan.
Similarly, all Victorian sites are now closed with staff working from home; excepting those approved to be onsite to conduct critical project work or due to extenuating personal circumstances
CSIRO Executive Director Katherine Paroz called on staff to be prepared and flexible.
“I had hoped that we could experience a more stable situation in 2021, but it is obvious we still have a long way to go before our lives and work can return to being more predictable, as they have been in the past.
“We must continue to be vigilant and prepared to transition to alternative working arrangements at short notice,” Ms Paroz said.
Acting Staff Association Secretary Susan Tonks said the union would continue to work constructively with CSIRO management in the interests of employee safety.
“We believe that the safety of CSIRO staff should remain paramount and union representatives recently met with CSIRO’s Situation Management Team to review the responses to both the Victorian and Western Australia outbreaks.
“Our ‘Return to Workplaces’ working group – comprised of Staff Association delegates and members from sites around the country – will continue to inform the union’s ongoing advocacy around Covid workplace issues,” Ms Tonks said.
The working group provides timely and proactive advice to Staff Association officials to better represent issues and concerns when making representations to CSIRO management. For more information email [email protected] or visit our website.
Meanwhile, CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall hosted an all-staff webinar on the Australian vaccine program. The panel included Rob Grenfell, Trevor Drew, Susie Nilsson and Michelle Baker.
Dr Marshall praised CSIRO’s capacity to deliver.
“Last January and February, I told the Prime Minister that CSIRO could help Australia choose from the 160 vaccine candidates and we could help solve the shortage of critical medical safety gear like masks.
“We could figure out a way to isolate and identify hot spots and use data to track and even predict outbreaks and help figure out how to manufacture the vaccine domestically since we knew we couldn’t count on overseas supply… and CSIRO delivered every single thing I committed to the Prime Minister and, in fact, we delivered even more.”
Dr Grenfell outlined the key elements of the vaccine program.
“The Government has purchased 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which is approved for use in Australia by our Therapeutic Goods Administration… They’ve also pre-purchased 53.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. That’s important because we actually need two doses each but also far more importantly our Pacific neighbours need this… The Government has also purchased 51 million doses of Novavax, a vaccine that had its Phase One clinical trials in Australia.
“Now this rollout is to begin in February with the aim of vaccinating all Australian adults by October. No mean feat, we have never done this before in the history of this country and globally, it hasn’t actually been done either,” Dr Grenfell said.
Dr Drew described the planning CSIRO had conducted before the first detection of COVID-19, prior to the pandemic.
“In October 2019, the first discussions were being had at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP).. that we should approach the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) with a view to developing a pre-clinical vaccine timeline for ‘Disease X’.. an idea that had been around for a few years, getting ready for the next pandemic.
“It was extremely fortuitous that at the time of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, we already had a project in place, we had all the contracts in place, work had been done here at ACDP previously on the SARS vaccine and the MERS vaccine… that gave ourselves and a number of the vaccine designers a huge advantage,” Dr Drew said.
Dr Nilsson outlined CSIRO’s work for vaccine production.
“CSIRO Manufacturing has been involved in vaccines for quite a bit of time before COVID-19, within our business unit we have expertise in translating products such as vaccines from the bench to the clinical trial. This includes process development for scale-up and the production and purification of products.”
“Back in 2019 we also began a project with CEPI around rapid vaccine development. This was originally set up to look at a variety of different viruses including influenza and MERS… CSIRO was identified as a rapid response organisation.
“What that meant was that we were prepared that if we came to a pandemic situation, we would turn our hands to rapidly respond to that pandemic… we never predicted that we would find ourselves in the pandemic that we are now with COVID-19,” Dr Nilsson said.