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Australian researchers at the Kirby Institute at UNSW Sydney, Doherty Institute and Burnet Institute, along with international organisations, the Clinton Health Access Initiative and Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, have been awarded $5.2 million to strengthen laboratory capacity for testing and diagnosis of COVID-19, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis in the Indo-Pacific region.

The funding for the collaboration announced on Monday is part of the Federal Government’s $242 million commitment to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The focus of the work was developed in partnership between Australia and the Global Fund.

“With COVID-19 cases rising in many countries of the Asia-Pacific region, there have been growing concerns about how the increased pressure on health systems will impact existing programs to eliminate malaria, tuberculosis and HIV,” Professor Anthony Kelleher, Director of the Kirby Institute said.

“This investment from the Australian Government will allow us to work with our partners in Papua New Guinea, Cambodia and Laos PDR to enhance local laboratory capacity which is essential for the accurate diagnosis of these infectious diseases, and which is stretched by the heightened challenges brought on by COVID-19.”

Professor Deborah Williamson from the Doherty Institute said it was essential to move quickly.

“Infectious diseases require a constant foot on the pedal. Lifting it even slightly is enough to see rapid resurgence of diseases that we have been working hard to bring under control. This is a critical time for the management of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV in many countries of our region, and this investment from the Australian Government will help ensure crucial gains achieved are not lost, while at the same time enhancing testing capacity for COVID-19,” she said.

Rising cases of COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea have highlighted regional health security concerns when infectious diseases are not contained in our neighbouring countries.

“The grant is designed to improve impact of Global Fund’s work in our region through lab strengthening of countries to carry out the critical task of testing and diagnosis,” Australia’s Ambassador for Regional Health Security, Dr Stephanie Williams said.

“It will also continue to strengthen technical partnerships between experts in Australia’s world-class institutions and their regional counterparts.”

Professor William Pomat from the PNG Institute of Medical Research welcomed the announcement.

“We have a longstanding partnership with the Kirby Institute, and have achieved many important health outcomes through our collaborative efforts. This new collaboration will help set PNG on the best possible path to improve the detection of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria in our country, as well as improve our capability to do COVID-19 testing,” he said.

“An added benefit of this collaboration is that it will bring together the expertise of other leading research centres, as well as the experiences of other countries in our region, so we can each learn from each other’s experiences.”

In recent years there have been many technological developments in testing for infectious diseases. Tests are now more accurate, can be conducted and analysed more easily, and are performed at the local level. This collaboration will investigate how best to integrate these technologies into existing health systems and in resource poor settings.