The Health Research Council is funding 13 studies into Covid-19, including three investigations for possible treatments, Marc Daalder reports

The Health Research Council (HRC) and Ministry of Health are putting $3.8 million into researching Covid-19, including three studies of possible treatments for the illness.

“This research has the potential to contribute answers to questions the world is grappling with, especially those concerning treatment options for Covid-19,” HRC chief executive Professor Sunny Collings said.

One of the three treatment studies is an extension of an extant international project, started three years ago, that tests the efficacy of already-available drugs in treating severe, community-acquired pneumonia. The project, REMAP-CAP, has already been active in 10 New Zealand ICUs and is designed to adapt for when a pandemic occurred.

This project will focus on immune modulation treatments and anti-viral drugs such as the much-hyped hydroxycholoroquine and lopinavir-ritonavir.

The second clinical trial, called Australasian Covid-19 Trial or ASCOT, will be carried out in multiple locations across New Zealand and Australia and test the anti-virals used in REMAP-CAP on patients requiring hospitalisation but not intensive care. The New Zealand arm of ASCOT is being led from Middlemore Hospital by Dr Susan Morpeth.

The third trial also examines hydroxychloroquine, this time when applied to frontline healthcare workers as a preventative drug. It will be carried out at Wellington Regional Hospital by Medical Research Institute of New Zealand director Professor Richard Beasley.

In addition to clinical trials of treatments, which have been funded to the tune of $1,365,000, 10 other studies will explore the impact of the virus on New Zealand society and economy.

For example, University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker has received $500,000 to examine the impact of Covid-19 on New Zealanders, the inequalities the virus and accompanying response might exacerbate and how to improve the response so as to avoid intensifying these inequalities.

“Experience from overseas demonstrates the profound impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on populations. The pandemic has potential to worsen health inequalities because people with existing health conditions (common in Māori and Pasifika) are more likely to become severely ill,” Baker writes in his project summary.

“However, large-scale measures to control the spread of the virus are likely to have the worst impact on those who can least afford it. To avoid these harms, our team of experts will provide ongoing analysis of information from multiple sources about pandemic impact and the lived experience of those with the infection and their whānau.”

Another project will investigate the possibility of rapid – 15-minute – tests that can distinguish between Covid-19 and influenza without the use of specialised DNA equipment.

The Ministry of Health’s Chief Science Advisor, Dr Ian Town, said in a statement that the research could make a real difference to the world.

“The projects selected will make a real difference to our understanding of how to manage this epidemic and how wider society is responding to efforts to break the chain of transmission,” he said.

““From some of these studies, we will get a comprehensive picture of the effectiveness of self-isolation measures in New Zealand and important guidance on how to better support Māori and Pacific communities with their concerns and reactions to Covid-19.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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