COVID-19 research team earns Liley Medal


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Members of the COVID-19 research team, from left: Charlotte Gilkinson, Julia Scott, Shevaun Pain, Dr Sarah Jefferies, Dr Virginia Hope, Professor Patricia Priest, Professor Nigel French, Dr Andrea McNeill, Liang Yang. Not shows: Giles Graham, Namrata Prasad, Jonathan Marshall, Dr Petra Muellner, Dr Jillian Sherwood, Dr Caroline McElnay.


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Associate Professor Jonathan Marshall

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Adjunct Senior Lecturer Dr Petra Muellner

A team including Massey University researchers has been named the winner of the 2021 Liley Medal. The award, presented by the Health Research Council, is for a specific piece of outstanding work that is internationally recognised and is a leading contributor to health research in New Zealand.

The COVID-19 research team, led by public health physician Dr Sarah Jefferies from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), won the award for their study that showed the impacts of New Zealand’s non-pharmaceutical measures on COVID-19 health outcomes, health equity, and initial control of the novel pandemic virus.

Distinguished Professor Nigel French, Associate Professor Jonathan Marshall and Adjunct Senior Lecturer Dr Petra Muellner are co-authors of the study, titled COVID-19 in New Zealand and the impact of the national response: a descriptive epidemiological study. The study was published in The Lancet Public Health in October 2020.

The study discusses how New Zealand’s initial COVID-19 response was notable for its strict border closures, rapid implementation of a national lockdown and rapid surveillance enhancements, enabled by the collective efforts of multiple agencies, health workers and communities. This ultimately led to a marked reduction in the transmission of COVID-19 in the first two weeks of lockdown, which allowed cases to be contact traced and rapidly detected.

The study provides evidence to the international community of how the multi-faceted components of New Zealand’s stringent, evidence-informed response led to the relatively low  burden of COVID-19 and disparities, and initial achievement of COVID-19 elimination at the start of the pandemic.

Massey University’s Distinguished Professor Nigel French says the medal is recognition of the skill and dedication of Dr Jefferies and her ESR colleagues, and of the importance of collaboration at a time of crisis.

“We were delighted to be involved in the study and to have the opportunity to work alongside colleagues from ESR and Otago University. The work would not have been possible without the high quality surveillance carried out by ESR, and of course the outcome of elimination in 2020 was a credit to the team of five million New Zealanders.”

Other study authors include Professor Patricia Priest from Otago University, Dr Virginia Hope, Charlotte Gilkinson, Giles Graham, Dr Andrea McNeill, Shevaun Paine, Namrata Prasad, Dr Jill Sherwood and Julia Scott from ESR, Dr Caroline McElnay from the Ministry of Health, and Liang Yang from Epi-interactive. 

Massey University Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes says the researchers’ contribution to the collaborative study and the research itself will make a great impact not only within New Zealand, but on the global stage too.

“Surveillance of COVID-19, and the national response to it, is an ongoing process that has directly impacted decision-making at the highest level, both within New Zealand and abroad. Being awarded the Liley Medal for this work is a significant achievement for the COVID-19 research team, and I commend and congratulate Distinguished Professor French, Associate Professor Marshall and Dr Muellner for their outstanding work.” 

Members of the COVID-19 research team continue to support the national COVID-19 response and assess its impacts.

About the Liley Medal

The Health Research Council established the Liley Medal in 2004 to recognise an individual or research team whose recent research has produced a significant breakthrough within the health and medical fields. The medal honours the outstanding contributions made by Sir William Liley while at the National Women’s Hospital in Auckland.

Previous recipients include:

2020 - Professor Mark Weatherall (University of Otago, Wellington) and Mr Mark Holliday (Medical Research Institute of New Zealand) for their role on the Novel START study which showed that taking a combination inhaler as needed reduced the risk of patients with mild asthma having a severe asthma attack.

2019 - Distinguished Professor Ian Reid, Dr Anne Horne and their team at the University of Auckland for their ground-breaking osteoporosis research that could help reduce the number of older women presenting with fractures by up to half. 

2018 - Professor Cynthia Farquhar, Postgraduate Professor at the University of Auckland and consultant clinician at the Auckland District Health Board, for her breakthrough in showing the benefit of intrauterine insemination (IUI) for couples with unexplained infertility.

2017 - Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent from Otago University for his study showing a clear long-term association between a child's upbringing and the state of their teeth as an adult.

More information about the Liley Medal is available here.

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