Distinguished Professor appointed co-director of Infectious Diseases Research Platform

Thursday 14 July 2022

Distinguished Professor Nigel French has been appointed inaugural co-director of the Infectious Diseases Research Platform, alongside Hauora Māori leader Te Pora Thompson.

Distinguished Professor Nigel French and Te Pora Thompson.

Professor Nigel French and Te Pora Thompson.

A key initiative aimed at boosting Aotearoa New Zealand’s COVID-19 response and preparing for future disease outbreaks has taken a significant step forward with the appointment of co-directors to the newly formed Infectious Disease Research Platform (IDRP).

The Platform, co-hosted by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) and the University of Otago, is to be led by Hauora Māori leader Te Pora Thompson, Ngati Hauā, and Distinguished Professor and expert in infectious disease epidemiology and public health, Professor Nigel French.

The development of the IDRP arose from the Government’s announcement of a $36 million research fund last year, with ESR and the University of Otago later appointed as joint hosts of the platform.

Drawing from the experiences of the past two years and expertise from around Aotearoa, the IDRP aims to strengthen the infectious disease research capability in Aotearoa, ensure our country is best prepared for emerging infectious disease threats, fulfil the aims of Pae Ora (the Government’s vision for Māori health) and links with international research.

The University of Otago’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) Professor Richard Blaikie says the IDRP will help build New Zealand’s research excellence and capability.

“The platform will engage communities and researchers through a nationwide network,” Professor Blaikie explains.

“We are excited to be able to appoint high calibre co-directors in both Te Pora and Nigel to lead the way in development of the platform which will help ensure Aotearoa is better prepared for known and emerging infectious disease threats, including future pandemics.”

Professor French has been working on the epidemiology, prevention and control of infectious diseases for more than 25 years and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in recognition of his leadership of research programmes that contributed to reducing the burden of infectious disease in New Zealand. He is Chief Scientist of the New Zealand Food Safety Science and Research Centre, co- director of One Health Aotearoa and has contributed to the COVID-19 response as an epidemiologist and member of the Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group.

Ms Thompson has a wealth of experience in local, regional and national Māori advisory positions, including previous roles as Chair of the Iwi Māori Council and as a member of the Commissioner

Group for Waikato District Health Board. She is currently one of five Maangai Maaori (voice of Māori) to Hamilton City Council for Iwi and Mana Whenua, a co-lead for research projects with national organisation Te Rau Ora and serves as hauora leadership to Waikato-Tainui.

The opportunity to lead a programme of work that builds on the experience of the past is critically important, says Ms Thompson, who found herself bridging civil defence, Iwi, local government and DHB responses during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak.

“We have learned a lot over the past years. For severe disease outbreak, we have strengthened our relationships for greater partnerships to uplift our communities at risk and built capacity. Together, we have a much clearer view of the challenges we face immediately and in the future so that the wellbeing of our people remains paramount.”

Professor French agrees, describing the platform as “the best opportunity available to make the greatest difference in an area that has impacted us all”.

“The ability to move forward in a true spirit of partnership to address inequities is very exciting.”

ESR’s General Manager Māori Impact Jymal Morgan says the platform will engage communities and researchers nationwide and will leverage its international networks in the pursuit of research excellence, equity of health outcomes, equity of opportunity and upholding Te Tiriti o Waitangi and its obligations.

“We will enable Māori knowledge, ways of working and frameworks, consistent with Māori aspirations and New Zealand Health Strategies and Action Plans. The outcome will be that Aotearoa’s research effort is co-ordinated and well prepared to meet the challenges of future threats from infectious diseases.”

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