Major award for Australian Covid pioneer

Fifty-two minutes that changed the world underpinned by 30 years of basic research

November 3, 2021
Eddie Holmes University of Sydney

A Sydney scientist who helped unravel the genetic secrets of the virus that causes Covid-19, initiating an unprecedented explosion of global vaccine and diagnostics development, has claimed Australia’s top science award.

University of Sydney evolutionary biologist and virologist Eddie Holmes, who last year became the first person in the world to publicly share the Covid-19 virus’ genome sequence, has won this year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Professor Holmes received the A$250,000 (£137,000) award for almost 30 years of pioneering research on genome sequencing data, providing insights into diseases including HIV, Ebola, hepatitis C, dengue fever and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

But it took him barely an hour to upload the genetic blueprint that the world was particularly anxious for, enabling scientists to begin developing vaccines against Covid-19 within days.

Prime minister Scott Morrison said Professor Holmes’ research into emerging viruses had played a critical role in the response to the disease.

“Science has been at the forefront of our minds for the last 18 months, and Professor Holmes’ contribution to accelerating the development of the Covid-19 vaccine – doses of hope, as I call them – saved countless lives,” Mr Morrison said.

Professor Holmes described himself as “a cheerleader” for a huge research effort involving many people. “The last 18 months have taught me two important things. First, scientists must share their data as openly and freely as possible. Second, society must trust in science because it’s science that will help us solve some of the great challenges that we face – like Covid,” he said.

Sydney vice-chancellor Mark Scott said Professor Holmes’ achievements demonstrated the importance of fundamental research. “His 30 years unravelling the mysteries of elegantly designed parasites – rather than one rebellious act on a Saturday morning in January 2020, when he could upload – resulted in the virus genome being seen around the world 52 minutes later,” Professor Scott told the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit in late October.

“Eddie understood that it was 30 years in the lab in basic research that provided the powerful practical translation that was a key stepping stone to the creation of the vaccine and the world response to Covid-19.”

Professor Holmes has pioneered methods to reveal the fundamental mechanisms of how viruses evolve and jump between species to cause and spread disease. He has also helped develop computational tools that enable precise tracking of the spread and evolution of viruses.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science are considered Australia’s most prestigious awards for scientific research, research-based innovation and excellence in STEM teaching. Professor Holmes’ prize was not the only gong for the University of Sydney, with Michael Bowen – an associate professor with Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre – claiming the Prize for New Innovators for his work driving scientific discoveries related to serious brain disorders that currently lack effective treatments.

Major awards also went to CSIRO astronomer Keith Bannister and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre oncologist Sherene Loi.

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