UNSW Research COVID-19: Rapid Response Research Fund Projects

UNSW Research COVID-19: Rapid Response Research Fund Projects details

List of Successful Projects Details:

The UNSW COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Initiative received a large number of high quality applications. Below are the project details of the 13 successful projects that will initially be funded. 

Accelerated development and clinical evaluation of immunotherapies for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19

Project led by Professor Anthony Kelleher, Kirby Institute, Medicine.

Project Collaborators:

  • Associate Professor Mark Polizzotto, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine
  • Associate Professor Stuart Turville, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Dr Chantelle Ahlenstiel, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor Matthew Law, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor Daniel Christ, The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Professor Geoff Symonds, St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor William Rawlinson, School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine 

Project Description:

1) Laboratory: Establishment and support for critical PC3 laboratory infrastructure to take at least two complementary, immunotherapies, that can be rapidly scaled up, from bench to bedside through development of a suite of vital viral assays for assessing in vitro efficacy of candidate approaches including: developing hyperimmune Ig; neutralising monoclonal antibodies with the Garvan; and thereafter small molecule inhibitors of SARS-CoV-2 from UNSW collaborators.

2) Clinical: Establishment of clinical trial capacity to design, develop and conduct early phase and Phase 2a/b and 3 clinical trials of leading approaches through both local and international networks such as INSIGHT.


  • Completed Phase 1b/2a trial of Hyperimmune Ig by Oct 2020, commence phase 2B/3 trial by Jan 2021
  • Identification of lead monoclonal antibody and preparation of clinical grade batch for clinical trial by Dec 2020, Commence Phase 1a trial Jan 2021
  • Provide a platform for rapid PC3 in vitro screening of lead antiviral candidates: e.g. si/shRNAs, and other small molecules from across campus


A randomised trial to determine the effect of continuing versus discontinuing renin angiotensin system blockade on the risk of SARS-CoV-19 infection in patients with uncomplicated hypertension*

Project led by Professor Alta SchutteSchool of Public Health and Community Medicine, Medicine

*This project was awarded however not taken up due to subsequent changes in both disease incidence and the evidence base.

Project Collaborators:

  • Professor Bruce Neal, The George Institute
  • Professor David Peiris, The George Institute 
  • Professor Anthony Rogers, The George Institute
  • Associate Professor Gian Luca di Tanna, The George Institute
  • Dr Clare Arnott, The George Institute
  • Professor Sean Emery, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor Louisa Jorm, Centre for Big Data Research in Health, Faculty of Medicine 

Project Description:

Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor or angiotensin receptor blocker (ACEi/ARB) therapy is used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide for treatment of hypertension. ACEi/ARB therapies may upregulate expression of the ACE2 receptor which is the site SARS-CoV-19 attaches to enter the lungs. There is huge clinical uncertainty about whether ACEi/ARB therapy should be continued of discontinued. This trial will randomise 5,520 individuals with uncomplicated hypertension to either continue current ACEi/ARB therapy  or switch to an alternative (calcium antagonist or diuretic). The trial will be done without patient contact using remote recruitment and consent processes in primary care supported by a parallel $250,000 investment that the George Institute is making in a Research Register. Intervention and control will be done by engaging general practitioners and asking them to switch prescriptions in those assigned to alternative treatment. The primary outcome will be infection with SARS-CoV-19 identified through linkage of participant details to routinely collected data.  Severity of infection will also be assessed amongst those participants that become infected. The trial will have 80% power to detect a 2% difference in infection rates assuming a background infection rate of 10% over 6 months. A randomised clinical trial will provide the most reliable evidence to ensure informed clinical decision making globally – currently relying on observational human studies and inconsistent animal data. Concurrently an International Society of Hypertension-led prospective meta-analysis will be performed using the global network held by the lead applicant to engage countries and develop a shared protocol. 


Molecular point of care testing among disadvantaged and vulnerable populations in Australia to contain COVID-19 outbreaks and prevent morbidity and mortality

Project led by Professor Rebecca Guy, Kirby Institute, Medicine

Project Collaborators: 

  • Dr Belinda Hengel, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor Greg Dore, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Dr Tanya Applegate, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Dr Phillip Read, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor Virginia Wiseman, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor Andrew Lloyd, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Dr John Kaldor, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor Carla Treloar, Centre for Social Research in Health and the Social Policy Research Centre, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences 

Project Description:

Equity matters when tackling COVID-19. Around the world, COVID-19 has affected vulnerable populations disproportionately. In Australia, the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (hereafter respectfully referred to as Aboriginal), people who are incarcerated, people who inject drugs, and homeless people. These vulnerable people experience higher rates of chronic disease and mental health illness, lower levels of education, employment, income, poorer quality housing and less access to care, compared with other Australians. These social determinants and comorbidities place them at high risk of COVID-19 related morbidity and mortality as was shown in the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, where Aboriginal people comprised 2.5% of the Australian population but accounted for 16% of hospitalisations and 9.7% of intensive care unit (ICU) admissions.

Inequitable public health responses for vulnerable populations. Physical (social) distancing and self-isolation, which are key parts of the COVID-19 public health response in mainstream Australia are impractical or difficult to implement for disadvantaged and vulnerable populations because of overcrowding, housing shortage or no housing. Thus, the public health response is strongly reliant on rapid case detection and contact tracing, to minimise unnecessary isolation (or evacuation from remote settings) for people without infection, and rapidly identify options for people with infection. Yet for most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations these responses are hindered by delays in access to testing and laboratory test results. 

We have the tools available to provide a more equitable response. The Cepheid Xpress Xpert SARS-CoV-2 assay is the only TGA approved molecular point of care (POC) test for diagnosis of COVID-19 outside the laboratory in Australia. This user-friendly POC test uses real time polymerase chain reaction (PCR), has 100% concordance with laboratory assays and provides results in 45 minutes.  Building on substantial emergency programmatic activity we will use UNSW funding to bring together a team of 27 researchers to conduct implementation research which aims to evaluate the clinical and public health impact, and cost-effectiveness of the rapid scale-up of molecular POC testing for COVID-19 among disadvantaged and vulnerable populations in Australia. The specific objectives are to evaluate the impact of the POC program on: (1) The number and proportion of contacts tested within 2 days of an index case; (2) days of self-isolation and evacuations avoided; and (3) community transmissions, hospitalisations, ICU admissions and mortality avoided. We will also; (4) evaluate the cost-effectiveness and budget impact of delivering POC testing across diverse primary health care services; and (5) describe the acceptability and health system requirements of integrating POC testing into clinical and public health responses.  

Study design and methods:  An observational cohort design, based on routine records, will be established via health services which have joined the COVID-19 POC Programs and agree to provide data for the cohort. We will compile routine programmatic data (collected by the health services and health departments) on the number of people who had a POC test, the time to result, the clinical status of those tested, the reason for testing (symptoms, contact), the referral pathway for those tested and clinical outcomes. Mathematical modelling will estimate days of self-isolation and evacuations, transmissions, hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths avoided. We will also evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the POC program compared to standard care and use qualitative research to determine the acceptability and health system infrastructure requirements of POC testing from a community, provider and public health perspective. The evaluation will be overseen by a reference group with representation from peak bodies representing the populations targeted in the program.   

Expected Outcomes: Our evaluation will assess across a diverse range of populations and services, the extent of improvement in COVID-19 clinical and public heath responses that occurred due to a programmatic shift from centralised laboratory testing to molecular POC testing and the resources required to achieve specific levels of improvement. The evaluation will also provide key information to inform future pandemic preparedness and the role of molecular POC testing technology.  

Point of Care, rapid testing for SARS CoV2 - Single molecule plasmonic sensor for amplification-free detection

Project led by Professor Justin GoodingSchool of Chemistry and Australian Centre for Nanomedicine, Science

Project Collaborators: 

  • Professor William Rawlinson, School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine
  • Dr Padmavathy Bakthavathsalam, School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science 
  • Dr Sacha Stelzer-Briad, School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine 

Project Description:

Aim of the project: The recent outbreak caused by a novel coronavirus (SARS CoV-2) poses a great threat to global public health, particularly in going forward, from community transmission. It becoming increasingly important to establish a rapid diagnostic test for the detection of SARS CoV2 to prevent community spread from a case, given the R0 value is 2.2 to 2.6 on current estimates. Current methods for detecting COVID-19 is to use laboratory base, gold standard, qPCR which detects viral RNA or lateral flow devices that detect a viral infection indirectly by quantifying the presence of antibodies as a result of the immune system’s response to an infection. The drawback of the qPCR is the logistics of transporting samples to the laboratory. The drawbacks of the lateral flow devices are firstly they are insensitive such that high viral loads are needed before they will respond, typically 7 days after infection for COVID-19, and a positive would still typically require qPCR to be performed as it is an indirect method of detecting an infection. Thus the unmet need is a rapid test that detects viral RNA that ideally does not require amplification.  The primary challenge is the low concentration of the virus genomic material especially during early stages of infection. We have developed a new approach to detecting viral RNA directly from nasopharyngeal swabs using plasmonic nanoparticles that allow single molecule detection and is compatible with a handheld portable device. The optical properties of the plasmonic nanoparticles are dependent on the size, shape and the refractive index surrounding the nanoparticle. Using dark-field optical microscopy, we examine scattering arising from individual nanoparticles. The wide field nature of this measurement allows simultaneous characterization of 1,000 nanoparticles. With the help of computer algorithms, we track the colour of each nanoparticle and their optical signatures are represented in a digital array format. The proof-of concept of the proposed assay platform has been established by the existing collaborative group for detection of Influenza virus (H1N1 subtype) to allow subtype differentiation and quantification by plasmonic sensor using dark field microscopy (Technology patent under progress through UNSW knowledge exchange). The robust design of the sensor allowed direct detection of various clinical samples including nasopharyngeal aspirates and nasopharyngeal swabs with sensitivity comparable to reference techniques. This unique potential of the sensor is now being applied towards development of a rapid diagnostic platform for SARS CoV-2 virus.  

Methods: The assay consists of a hairpin probe sequence targeting the unique 20-24 bp genome sequence of the virus. The designed target sequence will form the loop region of the probe and the stem region of 7 bases will be added followed by polyA sequence.

The designed polyA hairpin sequence will be conjugated to the satellite gold nanoparticles (40 nm). The core gold nanoparticles (80 nm) were conjugated to polyT sequence and anchored on to the substrate via aminosilane chemistry. The poly A hairpin probe conjugated satellite particles were hybridized to the polyT modified core particles to form the hairpin linked dimers. The target is detected by the viral RNA hybridizing to the loop region of the hairpin, leading to the opening of hairpin which increases the particles distance leading to a change in colour towards the blue part of the spectrum (Figure 1). The spectral shift of individual nanoparticles are captured by a digital camera and processed to obtain the pseudospectra of individual particles. The power of this construct over other plasmonic systems is the blue shift makes it far less prone to nonspecific protein adsorption from biological samples and hence makes it compatible for use in biological samples without any sample preparation steps. Any positive response corresponds to single molecule measurement allowing amplification free and calibration free sensor. 

Expected outcomes of the project: A portable analytical device for detecting viral RNA from SARS CoV-2. The proof of concept system was tested on several strains of influenza virus. The proposed research is expected to show similar sensitivity in detecting SARS CoV-2. The plasmonic nanoparticles exhibit strong optical properties that can be detected by a digital camera or smartphone camera. The sensor surface could be used on direct lysate of clinical samples in 30 min. The above benefits reduce turnaround assay time with ultrasensitive detection limit of 10-100 copies /mL of virus genome in the test sample. The integration of the portable device and digital quantification of the dark field image obtained from the sensor allows automated analysis of the presence of virus minimizing the risk for healthcare workers. Through point-of-care, self sampling applications, this will provide safer, reduced turnaround for SARS CoV-2 diagnosis, applicable to developing country applications through our clinical partners.

Real-time phylogeography of SARS-CoV-2 directly from patient samples

Project led by Conjoint Professor William Rawlinson, School of Medical Sciences, Medicine

Project Collaborators:

  • Dr Sacha Stelzer-Braid, The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Associate Professor Rowena Bull, The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Dr Ira Deveson, The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Professor Andrew Lloyd, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine and Prince of Wales Hospital
  • Associate Professor Jeffrey Post, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine
  • Associate Professor Matthew Scotch, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine and Prince of Wales Hospital 
  • Professor Sebastiaan van Hal, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, University of Sydney 

Project Description:


  1. Sequence 200 SARS-CoV-2 whole-genomes from Eastern/Southern/Metropolitan Sydney using both Oxford Nanopore and Illumina platforms, in order to compare the accuracy, reproducibility and practicality of these methods for SARS-CoV-2 rapid surveillance
  2. Profile SARS-CoV-2 clusters in real time, determining phylogeographic relationships
  3. Determine the extended respiratory virome of SARS-CoV-2 infected patients using viral capture sequencing, in order to assess the incidence of co-infections and correlate this upper respiratory tract (URT) viral load and presence of other viral infections with disease severity and patient outcomes in the clinical setting


  1. Contribution of Australian data in real-time
  2. Application of phylogeography to inform community transmission in the region with the highest rate in NSW
  3. Development of models of higher clinical risk (transmission, co-infection, viral factors including mutations, viral load, duration of virus shedding, correlation with virus culture)
  4. Application of these models to inform testing strategies (multiplex virus detection, virus load, WGS) as aids to patient prognosis and follow-up
Why do only some patients develop severe COVID-19 following infection with SARS-CoV-2?

Project is led by Conjoint Professor Stuart Tangye, St Vincent's Clinical School & Garvan Institute, Medicine

Project Collaborators: 

  • Professor Chris Goodnow, The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Associate Professor Joseph Powell, The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Associate Professor Elissa Deenick,The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Associate Professor Daniel MacArthur, The Garvan Medical Research Institute
  • Associate Professor Tri Phan, St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine  
  • Associate Professor Sarah Kummerfeld, St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine  
  • Associate Professor Alexander Swarbrick, St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Ms Mary-Anne Young, St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine  
  • Professor Gail Matthews,St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine 


Project Description:

By using cutting edge molecular, genomic, transcriptomic and cellular technologies, we will determine the genetic basis of severe COVID-19. This will identify non-redundant signaling pathways and immune cells critical for robust host responses against SARS-CoV2. Outcomes from this study will enable the development of novel prophylactic and therapeutic strategies for severe viral infections.

'Count me in’: a national research register of one million Australians involved in COVID-19 research

Project led by Professor Louisa Jorm, Centre for Big Data Research in Health, Medicine

Project Collaborators: 

  • Professor Bruce Neal, The George Institute
  • Dr Claire Arnott,The George Institute
  • Professor Anthony Rodgers, The George Institute
  • Professor Sallie-Anne Pearson, Centre for Big Data Research in Health, Faculty of Medicine 

Project Description:

The COVID-19 pandemic requires a massive, co-ordinated and immediate research response.  There has been significant immediate investment in research addressing the acute management of severely ill patients in hospital, but little has been done to build the capacity to investigate out-of-hospital opportunities for prevention and treatment. This project will massively upgrade our ability to rapidly engage the broader Australian community. 

Over the last 6 months, UNSW Sydney and the George Institute for Global Health have developed a novel Research Register, ‘Count Me In’, designed to transform the participation of Australians in research.  We will now pivot this work to address the COVID-19 emergency and support a broad range of COVID-19 related research projects done by UNSW Sydney and partners around the country.  

Specifically, this project will:
•    Link routinely collected health data to a cohort of one million Australians willing to engage in research addressing the COVID-19 crisis;
•    Place UNSW Sydney researchers at the heart of the research response to the COVID-19 emergency;
•    Enable large-scale participant recruitment to multiple COVID-19 research projects across the country; and
•    Define the medium- and long-term effects of COVID-19 infection on health and wellbeing.

Advanced manufacturing technologies to support Australian companies to retool for on-demand and rapid manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE) and critical components of medical devices

Project led by Dr Xiaopeng Li, School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Engineering.

Project Collaborators: 

  • Professor Chun Wang, School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering 
  • Professor Jay Kruzic, School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering 
  • Professor Michael Ferry, School of Material Science and Engineering, Faculty of Science 
  • Professor Naresh Kumar, School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science
  • Professor Iipo Koshinen, Design Next, UNSW 
  • Professor Wei Wang, School of Computer Science and Engineering, Faculty of Engineering 
  • Dr Jin Zhang, School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Faculty of Engineering 
  • Dr Blake Cochran, School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine

Project Description:

By leveraging the expertise of a group of UNSW academics from different faculties and schools and working closely with our industrial partners and contacts in hospitals/LHD/Govt., this project aims to address the current urgent COVID-19 situation/problem regarding the severe ongoing medical shortage by helping Australian companies to establish a new on-demand/rapid manufacturing network/technique for rapid production of PPE and medical devices. 

The successful delivery of this project will (1) provide new manufacturing techniques and processes based on 3D printing and knowledge/data-driven predictive modelling and (2) help local companies/industrial partners to scale up the production based on our design and techniques in (1) to help boost the supply of better PPE (e.g., antiviral/replaceable filters) and medical devices/components for ICUs.

Weathering the storm: Australia’s responses to domestic and family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic

Project led by Associate Professor kylie valentine, Social Policy Research Centre, Arts & Social Sciences.

Project Collaborators: 

  • Professor Jan Breckenridge, School of Social Sciences/Gendered Violence Research Network, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences 
  • Dr Natasha Cortis, Social Policy Research Centre, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences 
  • Dr Ciara Smyth, Social Policy Research Centre, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences 

Project Description:

International experiences, and known risk factors for domestic and family violence, indicate that an increase in the prevalence and severity of violence is a likely direct effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. How are Australian front line services and government agencies responding? What successes have been achieved in mitigating these risks, and what are the lessons that can be learnt? This project aims to investigate the short-term impact of the pandemic, and policy responses to the pandemic, on domestic and family violence in Australia. 

It will provide critical new knowledge for communities and scholarship on:
•    the extent to which, and in what circumstances, anticipated escalations in violence occurred, and those in which escalations were prevented
•    innovative, effective strategies used by support services to protect both families and the domestic and family violence workforce
•    implications for long-term policy responses to domestic and family violence.

The research design ensures that early lessons for policy and practice will be generated and disseminated widely to stakeholders and the research community for immediate impact. The findings and design also provide a basis for more sustained research programs on one of the most significant challenges to social policy in generations.

New disinfection systems to overcome PPE shortages and provide long term protection against infection in Hospitals and Public Settings.

Project led by Professor Mark Willcox, School of Optometry and Vision Science, Science.

Project Collaborators:

  • Dr Renxun Chen, School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science 
  • Professor Naresh Kumar, School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science 
  • Professor Raina MacIntyre, The Kirby Institute, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Professor William Walsh, Prince of Wales Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine
  • Dr Vedran Lovric, Prince of Wales Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine
  • Associate Professor Ralph Mobbs, Prince of Wales Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine

Project Description:


  1. Decontamination, sterilisation and reuse of Surgical Masks (N95) and PPE
  2. Sustained Disinfection of Surfaces in Hospital and Household Settings  


  1. Have a viable method for boosting the supply of critical PPE for healthcare workers
  2. Have solutions for sustained protection of surfaces, preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus from common touch points in public and hospital settings
Alcohol purchasing and consumption: learning from pandemic containment measures for more effective alcohol policy

Project led by Professor Alison Ritter, Social Policy Research Centre, Arts & Social Sciences.

Project Collaborators:

  • Dr Claire Wilkinson, Social Policy Research Centre, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences 
  • Ms Michala Kowalski, Social Policy Research Centre, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences 

Project Description:

The community wide physical distancing currently in place in New South Wales, Australia, and indeed across the globe in response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is a public health intervention on a scale never seen before. It has seen dramatic changes in alcohol policy, including the closure of licensed venues and anecdotally increases in off-license purchasing. But we do not know how the containment measures will affect alcohol consumption and related harm, a leading cause of disease globally. Studying the effects of these dramatic alcohol policy changes in NSW will be vital to inform current alcohol control strategies, provide internationally comparative data, and contribute to evidence-informed alcohol policy in the future. 

What is urgently needed is threefold: documentation of all the containment measures over time with regards to their effects on access to and availability of alcohol in NSW; in-depth insights into people’s experiences of containment in relation to alcohol purchasing and consumption; and quantitative data on changes in drinking behaviours during and after containment.  


  1. To detail the policy changes to alcohol availability in NSW (weekly, from early February through to end of July). This will not only serve as research infrastructure for future research on alcohol policy changes, but also provide the context to analyse our second research aim
  2. To obtain insights into changes in alcohol purchasing and consumption behaviour before, during and after the COVID-19 containment measures to inform future alcohol policy.


  1. A policy database of changes to alcohol access introduced in NSW in response to COVID-19. This will be a key piece of research infrastructure for future alcohol policy research
  2. Analysis of the ways in which people have changed their purchasing and consumption behaviour, and how that relates to the policy measures
  3. Understanding of potential areas of decreased alcohol-related harm and potential areas of increased alcohol-related harm, from the perspective of current NSW community members
  4. Evidence regarding the impact of changes to alcohol availability on people’s drinking behaviours
  5. Advice to governments about the future implications for alcohol policy in Australia
COVID-19: Understanding the sex and gender dimensions on women’s health and wellbeing

Project led by Professor Louise Chappell, Australian Human Rights Institute, Law.

Project Collaborators: 

  • Dr Janani Shantosh, Australian Human Rights Institute, Faculty of Law
  • Dr Patricia Cullen, School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Faculty of Medicine 
  • Dr Amanda Henry, School of Women's and Children's Health, Faculty of Medicine
  • Professor Mark Woodward, The George Institute
  • Professor Robyn Norton, The George Institute
  • Associate Professor Sanne Peters, The George Institute (Oxford)  
  • Dr Cheryl Carcel, The George Institute
  • Dr Carinna Hockham, The George Institute
  • Dr Naomi Hammond, The George Institute
  • Dr Brett Abbenbroek, The George Institute
  • Associate Professor Karen Walker, The George Institute
  • Ms Kelly Thompson, The George Institute 
  • Professor Jan Breckenridge, Gendered Violence Research Network, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
  • Dr Meead Saberi, rCiti, Faculty of Engineering 
  • Professor Rosemary Morgan, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Project Description:

Background and aims: The sex and gendered impacts of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) have not been adequately addressed in policies and public health efforts amongst affected patients, vulnerable women and health workers.  

To address these issues, we will conduct:
1.    Sex-disaggregated analyses of global COVID-19 statistics and national policies.
2.    Mapping of health and frontline domestic and family violence service activity, capacity and regulatory responses during COVID-19.
3.    A sex- and -gendered disaggregated survey analysis of critical care responders and non-critical care health workers on the front lines of COVID 19.

Expected outcomes: Results will be used to inform clinicians and policy makers in developing tailored strategies to more rapidly and efficiently target the most vulnerable during the escalating pandemic and future outbreaks. The research will contribute to longer-term policy reform to better integrate a sex and gender disaggregated approach to enhance equitable and more effective health outcomes.

Tracking the Social, Cognitive and Mental Health Impact of COVID-19 from the Womb to Old Age

Project led by Dr Susanne Schweizer, Schoool of Psychology, Science

Project Collaborators: 

  • Dr Louise Mewton, Centre for Health Brain and Aging, Faculty of Medicine  
  • Professor Michelle Moulds, School of Psychology, Faculty of Medicine 

Project Description:

COVID-19 and its impact on living conditions is exposing Australians and the global community to a toxic combination of two extreme psychological stressors: existential threat and social isolation. The impact of both of these stressors on mental health cannot be over-estimated and is likely to extend well beyond the end of the pandemic. These protracted effects will be likely potentiated by the hypothesised impact of COVID-19 related stressors on cognitive functioning and social support networks, especially in young people in whom these protective factors are still developing. To tailor the national and global response to the population’s current and future mental health care needs, accurate estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on mental health are urgently needed. The proposed study aims to address this need by investigating the direct effect of these stressors on mental health as well as their indirect impact through the reduction of the protective effects of social support networks and cognitive functioning. 

To achieve this aim, the study will harness a multimodal online self-report and cognitive testing platform, mood tracking app and online social network assessment developed by the UNSW-based research team. Recruitment will target N = 3020 individuals across the lifespan based in Australia, the UK and US, with a particular focus on pregnant women (n = 600) and young people (8-24 years; n = 1920). We will also recruit adults (25-75 years; n = 500). Collecting data from these different geographical regions will allow for a naturalistic manipulation of the stressors (i.e., different levels of existential threat and social distancing regulations). Participants will complete self-report measures to assess their experience of COVID-19 related stressors and mental well-being. The quality and size of individuals’ social support networks will be measured using novel social network modelling techniques. An online cognitive task will track changes in cognitive functioning. To assess the impact of the stressors over time all measures will be re-administered after three (T2) and six (T3) months. Infant well-being and development for the offspring of pregnant mothers (T1) will be recorded with maternal self-report at T2 and T3. All data from young people, will additionally be harmonised with data from external collaborators in the UK (University of Cambridge & University of Oxford) and the US (University of Pittsburgh & University of Oregon), to investigate the replicability of the effects across samples. 

It is hypothesised that COVID-19 related stressors will lead to an increase in mental health problems across the population, especially in young people. Research investigating the effects of peripartum stress in mothers on maternal postpartum mental health and infant emotional and cognitive development, further, suggests that infants of mothers most affected by COVID-19 related stressors will show impaired developmental outcomes. Finally, all hypothesized effects will vary as a function of perceived existential threat as well as duration and severity of social distancing regulations implemented in the respondents’ countries.  

Together these findings will enable estimation of current mental health needs across the population, and allow us to forecast future need based on the accelerated nature of the design across recruitment sites and age. These data are urgently needed by governments both nationally and internationally, as the scale of the predicted impact will require co-ordinated effort to deploy evidence-based interventions in easy-to-disseminate formats; for example through e-mental health interventions.