Covid 19 coronavirus: Pandemic’s science stars honoured by PM Jacinda Ardern

A talented team of researchers who gave the Government the math it needed to keep Covid-19 at bay have taken out New Zealand’s premier science award.

Efforts by University of Auckland-based Te Pūnaha Matatini – just announced as the winners of the $500,000 Prime Minister’s Science Prize – have been a crucial part of New Zealand’s world-lauded pandemic response.

That’s involved modelling everything from hospital capability, contagion rates and likely disease spread, through to virus genomic tracing, contact tracing and vaccination.

But it’s also included communicating that science to the public – something which just saw Te Pūnaha Matatini’s ever-present co-deputy director, Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, named New Zealander of the Year.

When Covid-19 arrived in the country, the Centre for Research Excellence (CoRE) had been running for five years under the leadership of prominent physicist and science commentator Professor Shaun Hendy.

As suggested by its name – meaning “the place where many faces meet” – the centre’s role was to take complexity science and apply it to the “critical issues of our time”.

That could have – and should have – included building a pandemic model for the Government back in 2017, but an offer to officials came to nothing.

“Initially, I was a bit pissed off that, three years later, we hadn’t really started the pandemic modelling as a country,” Hendy told the Herald late last year.

“Having said that, I’d gone through it in my head what we’d need to do, and we’d had a couple of summer students who’d helped work on the kind of data we might be able to use in the event of a pandemic outbreak.

“So we didn’t have to start completely from scratch.”

Hendy’s tight modelling team, based across universities and Crown research institutes, include some of the best brains in their field.

Among them: Associate Professor Alex James, Professor Mike Plank, Dr Rachelle Binny, Dr Audrey Lustig, Nic Steyn, and Hendy’s fellow complex systems whiz at the University of Auckland, Dr Dion O’Neale.

They started with “SIR” models, an old standard for simulating outbreaks, and then developed smarter, more detailed stochastic models.

Their earliest modelling predicted up to 89 per cent of the population could become infected – within 400 days – if measures weren’t put in place.

Media outlets calculated figures from that report to reach an upper-bound, worst-case scenario of 80,000 deaths – which inevitably made it into headlines.

“It was tricky and it was something we worried about, but, you know… I was definitely of the view that we put our work out there, and then just trust the public and media to deal with it intelligently.”

Their modelling came to be relied upon heavily by ministry officials throughout the year – notably when Auckland was forced to lock down a second time.

Importantly, it also shone a light on stark health inequities within New Zealand, and how vulnerable communities would have fared badly had elimination not been achieved.

Meanwhile, Wiles became a tireless and accessible voice for science in mass media and in The Spinoff, where her collaborations with illustrator Toby Morris provided invaluable public resources to health officials and eventually even the World Health Organisation.

And in Kate Hannah, Te Pūnaha Matatini had a misinformation expert who could handily demystify fake news about Covid-19, and why it spread so quickly across social media.

Hannah told university publication Ingenio that the Covid-19 felt “very, very much like living in history,and having our team be a really key part of it”.

Hendy said it had been an “absolute pleasure” working with his team on the response.

“In a way it’s an unrepeatable experience, what we’ve been through.”

He thanked Kiwis for “listening to us, for trusting us – it’s been incredible”.

“If we hadn’t had that trust, it would have all been for nothing. So, it has meant the most that the public has got behind us and they have taken what we have said seriously.”

Looking forward, he said he wanted the tools his team had developed to be used by the next pandemic modellers.

“We had to build our tools from scratch and we don’t want Aotearoa to be caught in that situation again,” he said.

“So we will be leaving our tools, making them open so they can be maintained in perpetuity, so next time we meet an infectious disease crisis they are there for people to use.”

The Te Pūnaha Matatini team weren’t the only science heroes of the pandemic to be recognised by the annual awards, presented this afternoon by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Otago University’s Professor Michael Baker – the eminent epidemiologist who was lobbying the Government to take aggressive action early in the pandemic – was awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize.

A go-to science expert, he has given more than 2000 interviews since January 2020 and contributed around a third of total outputs recorded for the 70 commentators tracked by the Science Media Centre.

While already a studied expert in pandemics, Baker described the opening months of the crisis as the “the most intense period of my working life”.

Soon enough, he developed a concept of Covid-19 elimination and concluded that it was the optimal response strategy – and wept with joy when the Government announced a nationwide lockdown.

Away from Covid-19, Victoria University’s Dr Christopher Cornwall received the Prime Minister’s 2020 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize for his cutting-edge research on how marine organisms will fare under climate change.

His work has highlighted how warmer and more acidic ocean water affects the ability of calcifying marine organisms to lay down calcium carbonate to grow and make their skeletons.

The Prime Minister’s 2020 Science Teacher Prize was awarded to Remarkables Primary School teacher Sarah Washbrooke.

The first technology teacher to win the prize, her hands-on approach to teaching technology was so engaging for her students that they often remained unaware of the depth and range of learning they were doing.

The Prime Minister’s 2020 Future Scientist Prize went to former Bethlehem College student James Zingel, who spent hundreds of hours on a project focused on breast cancer and computing.

He used a breast cancer dataset run through both a classical computer and a quantum computer to see which was superior in analysing the data and determining the type of breast cancer present.

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