Can Australia Emerge as a Global Medical Research Leader?

Jun 16, 2020 | Australia, COVID-19, Investor Watch, Medical Research, News

Can Australia Emerge as a Global Medical Research Leader

Australia is positioned to thrive as a global hub of medical research, thanks to the competent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a top rated health system, world class research talent, and associated infrastructure. Health Minister Greg Hunt seeks to capitalize on what has been an internationally recognized response to the pandemic while the national stock pile of critical personal protective equipment (PPE) continues to grow into a healthy surplus despite the fact that global supplies have fallen. The Australian government seeks to attract more medical research, including clinical trials, to the Continent. There is much to be desired there and the opportunity certainly is present but underlying challenges centering on investment make the growth of research more challenging.  

Australia: the Pros

Jonathan Carapetis, President of the Australian Association of Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI), agrees with Minister Hunt as “absolutely spot on,” emphasizing to the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) that the COVID-19 crisis represents an opportunity to become a bigger research player on the global scene, commenting, “I think Australia doesn’t take this opportunity to really put ourselves forward as one of the leading medical research countries in the world then it is an absolute tragedy.”

After all, with a stable medical research sector, world class research universities and institutes, not to mention top scientific talent, why couldn’t Australia pull off major growth? The quality of life is extremely high. Australia’s life sciences hubs of Melbourne and Sydney are frankly some of the most beautiful cities in the world.  

The country is attractive to research talent and with instability in other nations due to COVID-19 disruptions or for that matter anti-immigrant nationalist protectionist politics in at least certain cases, Australia could do well by instituting programs to attract to best scientific talent. And that is exactly what is occurring. For example, the AMMRI is collaborating with non-profits such as Research Australia to work on “reform.”

Robyn Ward, Executive Dean of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health, reports she generally agrees with Minister Hunt, noting “We are strategically in a good place in Australia. What we need to see though is the opening up of the access to those studies again, in a sense a return to normality.”

Hence, from universities with Nobel Prize winners to a far more stable position than many other countries thanks to their recognized response to COVID-19, to a high-quality, highly accessible health care system and world class cities and spectacular natural conditions to a generally favorable and safe place for investment the opportunity for Australia to move up in standing in the international medical research ecosystem is real.

Obstacles Australia Faces to become A Global Research Leader

Although Australia “punches above its weight” and in some areas Australia in fact has emerged as a global leader, it is still small comparatively on global medical research scene conveyed Russel Gruen, Dean of the Australian National University’s John Curtin School for Medical Research. What are underlying issues that could keep it small?

Investment Challenges

One key challenge is the capital required for global leadership scale medical research: “The investment of industry and philanthropy in Australia is much less than it is in the U.S., Europe or the UK,” reported Gruen. It is this big differentiator that unfortunately sets Australia back, making it more difficult to keep ahead as competitors abroad have far more resources.

TrialSite News discussed this challenge showcasing the a critique of one of the nation’s most prominent biotech investors Dr. George Srymalis of the IQ Group Global.

Core to Dr. Syrmalis’ critique is that although the Australian government touts its commitment and dedication to the country move to an “innovation nation” the investor believes that the government really doesn’t know how to get the country into that mode. For example, Syrmalis has wanted more specifics around actual innovation policy (e.g. tax breaks, investments, etc.) to encourage more investment into the country.

But an underlying tone and theme of this investor’s critique of his own land is essentially cultural. Put candidly, Australian investors—we are making generalizations so don’t mean to offend—were in many cases conditioned in primary resource extraction, commodity booms and busts. These investors operated in the world of acting quickly at the right time with perhaps with the right inside information to strike it rich quickly on mineral extraction, for example.

The world of drug development, on the other hand, is a radically different place and space. And a spooky one for many Australian investors—with 10+ year clinical research programs, $2+ billion in investment and still a high probability of failure! Actually, that scares most people to be fair.

Throw into the mix a labyrinth of regulatory and compliance entanglements and specific scientific risks associated with various therapeutic areas and it all becomes too troublesome sounding a place without some major government and philanthropical financial augmentation—programs to bolster and boost participation.

Hence, among other things,  Dr. Syrmalis suggests some form of regulatory reforms within Australia. For example, he laments the need to make it far easier to spin out companies from the university setting, noting in the United States a company can be set up literally in days to weeks while in Australia it can take far longer. 

There is an old saying in quality assurance: you can’t improve what you can’t measure!   Perhaps the government could establish a range of key performance indicators based on competitive benchmarks (e.g. how long it takes to spinout a university created IP into a funded venture) and compare Australia to the U.S., UK, certain countries in Europe, China, etc. Once those KPIs are in place, then politicians and policy makers and various stakeholders from industry, universities, research institutes, financial institutions, etc. could work together to implement legal and/or policy change to progress KPI performance toward benchmark competitors.

Investment Models & Uncertain Economic Times

The funding mechanism for research in Australia must take into account that academic and non profit research institutes often don’t have enough funds to complete research and hence need to augment by either industry or philanthropy. And as the transition commences to “whatever comes after COVID-19,” the probability of severe economic downturn is considerable. This downturn could expose “flaws” in the current research funding system in Australia. The plain truth reports Jonathan Carapetis: “The funding we provide for medical research in this country doesn’t cover the full cost of actually doing that research.”

Conclusion

A beautiful and stunning land; a fantastic culture and generally an open and tolerant society; world class quality of life with what could be considered a top notch, highly accessible health care system not to mention some of the most beautiful places in the world to live—visit Sydney, Perth, Brisbane or Melbourne, and you’ll agree. Factor in a world class response to COVID-19 and the stability and security that could represent, coupled with closer access to massive Asian economies along with an openness and acceptance of immigrants in a time of less tolerance and more nationalistic jingoism at least in some important places, and Australia starts sounding like it could be the next place to start a hot new biotech company. Now it must tackle its investment problem.

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