University research focused on pandemic

Research throughout the University of Otago, and across its five national campuses, has refocused  in response to the global pandemic. Bruce Munro has collated a small sampler of what else is going on.



The first step in Covid-19 testing is purifying the genetic material of the virus. This is something usually performed in diagnostic laboratories with proprietary systems supplied by foreign companies. But during the pandemic, supply companies failed to keep up with demand, meaning locally-developed systems were needed as back-up. In collaboration with Canterbury Health Laboratories, we produced a validated protocol where the genetic material of the virus is captured using magnetic nanoparticles that can be self-made in even basic laboratory facilities. We can now make enough reagents for about 40,000 samples per day. Because the outbreak is under control in New Zealand (for now), the protocol hasn’t been widely used here. But it has been used for research and diagnostic testing throughout the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as Colombia, Estonia and Norway. Through our website (, and further laboratory refinements, we continue to support those using the protocol and develop further supply-chain resistant methods to test for the virus.


preventive and social medicine

Following my work as special adviser to Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee, I am reviewing all the new information that flows out daily from other countries about the epidemiology of Covid-19 and lessons for control. New Zealand has done extremely well in progressing towards elimination of this disease, but we cannot be complacent. As border restrictions are relaxed, either for travellers from Australia or for special groups such as international students, new cases are likely to arise. I am also comparing public health systems in different countries, because this pandemic has again exposed the weaknesses I described in a recent book, The Health of the People.



More than 5000 people have completed our online surveys investigating the psychological and political impact of Covid-19. The data suggests people are fearful of the virus and that this fear is associated with lower mental wellbeing. Interestingly, people’s political beliefs are also associated with fear of the virus. That is, people that rated themselves more towards the conservative end of the political spectrum were typically less fearful of Covid-19. This is consistent with findings that suggest the pandemic has been politicised. Understanding the immediate psychological impact of the pandemic is extremely important. We need to think about how we can balance fear appeals, which increase the chances that people abide by the lockdown rules, with the negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing.



As a structural biologist and an infectious diseases physician, a major focus for my laboratory is helping discover and improve small chemicals that block the function of viral proteins. These chemicals are candidate antiviral compounds that could be turned into medicines to treat viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Our lab is focusing on learning how tightly candidate compounds bind to their viral protein targets, and learning exactly where they bind within the viral protein. We use a technique called X-ray crystallography that gives an atomic view of what the molecules of the virus look like. If it is possible to block the functioning parts of the viral proteins with antivirals, then the virus cannot replicate. If the virus cannot replicate, game over, the virus has lost.


primary healthcare and general practice

I was fortunate to be awarded a Health Research Council (HRC) rapid response grant to look at inequities associated with physical distancing and self-isolation during the Covid-19 response, in particular among Maori and Pacific peoples. This work feeds into a larger HRC project awarded to Prof Michael Baker. More than 2000 people have already completed the online quantitative survey and some key data has already been provided to the Ministry of Health to help inform its strategy. Internationally, I am involved in Canadian and United States-based Covid-19 research. I hope this work contributes to collective knowledge about equity in disasters and influences government strategies to manage future waves or next pandemics more equitably.


mathematics and statistics

It’s been a privilege working with so many researchers across the University of Otago campuses, and beyond. I’ve been involved in simulation studies of what would happen if new cases arrived in New Zealand and of how long we need to wait to be sure we have eliminated Covid-19. I chair the internal review panel for the epidemic modelling work done by Te Punaha Matatini researchers and have recently co-authored a paper with them estimating the basic reproduction number, the R rate, in New Zealand. I am a member of the Coronavirus Statistical Advisory Group that has been advising the Ministry of Health on the best ways to test for Covid-19 in the population and in high-risk groups. I am currently involved in seroprevalence studies and studies on the efficacy of contact tracing measures.


department of food science

I am a New Zealand leader in the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research. We are beginning to investigate the sensory symptoms related to Covid-19. Clinical reports from several countries have suggested that anosmia (loss of smell) is a key early sign, and the only symptom in many Covid-19 cases. We are distributing a sensory questionnaire to Covid patients worldwide. To date, we have collected responses from more than 30,000 patients. We hope to learn how to better understand and diagnose the infection, and particularly how it affects smell loss. We think this could be a small yet important part of the overall Covid puzzle.


preventive and social medicine

I am a member of the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which includes people from a wide variety of disciplines, including public health specialists, microbiologists, primary care and infectious disease doctors, and experts in infection prevention and control. I am an epidemiologist, and chairwoman of the epidemiology subgroup of the TAG. We give advice to the Ministry of Health about epidemiological aspects of the pandemic response — for example in relation to surveillance. We are going to need a very effective surveillance system to ensure that we pick up new cases of Covid-19 promptly in future, so that their contacts can be traced and isolated, and we can stop new chains of transmission from getting too far.



I have been co-chairing a group called the Covid-19 Diagnostic Development Working Group (C19-DDWG). We are working across the universities and government agencies to come up with New Zealand-based C19 testing systems, should global supplies run short. We’re covering all aspects including swabs, N95 masks and PPE. We hope to gain self-sufficiency in Covid-19 diagnostic testing as insurance against global shortages, to save money for the Ministry of Health and to stimulate new export business opportunities. We have swabs in late-stage prototype form, and have identified home-grown sources for all the chemicals and reagents needed in molecular testing. A full test is being validated by teams at MPI and ESR, and could be in wide use within a month. This work will also act as a lead-in to the contributions New Zealand will make to global vaccine and therapeutic developments, demonstrating capabilities for future manufacturing and supply.


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