New Zealand's largest health research funders say they've been met with an "unprecedented" surge of proposed studies to help fight Covid-19.

The country's major medical researcher funder, the Health Research Council (HRC), and the largest independent one, the Auckland Medical Research Foundation (AMRF), have received heavy responses to urgent rounds they set up to tackle Covid-19.

Back when New Zealand had no confirmed cases, the HRC launched a round split into two pools – a $1m pool jointly funded with the Ministry of Health for "rapid response research", with a particular focus on health equity and at-risk groups, and a $2m pool, focused on emerging infectious diseases, to better equip the country with dealing with them.

It's since received nearly 70 proposals, spread across areas like public health, data science, clinical treatment, detection and biomedical research.


HRC chief executive Professor Sunny Collings said she'd been impressed at the "phenomenal" level of readiness by researchers to respond to the crisis.

The budget for the round – which has since been boosted, to fund around 20 per cent of applicants – was five times that of previous urgent calls the HRC issued to respond to past crises like the Christchurch earthquake and the Havelock North gastro outbreak.

Further, the turn-around time had been crunched down from the usual three to six months to just five weeks.

"That is unprecedented, and I'm really proud of the organisation for actually being able to do it," Collings said.

"We're also very convinced that the call is still fit for purpose, and right now we're talking to applicants to make sure they're still in a position to do [the studies]."

The AMRF's executive director, Sue Brewster, similarly said a funding round would typically take around six months for her organisation to complete.

"This process is taking three weeks," she said of the AMRF's fast-tracked, $500,000 fund announced this week.

Neither she, nor members of the foundation's board, could also think of a precedent.


"This hasn't happened before, as far as any of them can remember."

Applications had already begun flowing in, and Brewster expected the research focus areas would be ranging from bio-medical studies into new treatments, to those exploring the societal impacts of the lockdown.

"There is the potential for the Covid-19 project findings from New Zealand to feed into global research. It is going to be really important to not only take best practices and share them world-wide but also apply them to our unique population needs," she said.

"If we don't gather the data about what we are learning during this pandemic, we are doomed to be no further ahead next time and the experts are all saying there will be a next time."

Covid-19 – like the flu, Brewster said, might never be truly eradicated – but there might be other world-wide pandemics we could prepare for.

"The lessons we learn from this will be applicable to the next one," she said.


"We anticipate that for some researchers it will be a smart and logical extension of their research field.

"We have never had such a short turnaround for our research grants and the calibre of our Medical Committee will ensure the integrity and rigour being applied to the assessment process.

"We are committed to the highest quality of research projects being awarded funding. We believe it is critical the research is current and in real-time, particularly as it is such a rapidly-changing landscape."

The Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Professor Juliet Gerrard, compared the new wave of mission-focused research only to that on tackling climate change in its range and scale.

"I think climate change would be the obvious comparison here, in terms of something the whole global research community has turned their focus to," she said.

"Here, we've been seeing a lot of individual researchers turning their attention to it, and there are now various efforts underway to co-ordinate them and feed what they're doing into Government policy. It's been great seeing science rise to the challenge."