A Canadian philanthropist is donating 250 million Australian dollars ($224.4-million) to create the world’s first centre to develop therapeutic drugs for new pandemic threats.
The catch is that the groundbreaking institution will be located in Melbourne, Australia, not Canada.
“Let’s just say Australia is working better than Canada. I’ll leave it at that,” Geoffrey Cumming, a billionaire businessman, said in an interview.
Mr. Cumming said the decision was not a political statement but that “Australia has a very open government.” The businessman praised the country’s response to COVID-19 and said he could foresee Melbourne becoming a global centre for biomedical excellence, on par with Boston or Oxford-Cambridge in Britain. “We don’t have that kind of hub in Canada.”
He added that what matters ultimately is not where the research is conducted, but its impact.
Mr. Cumming said he was struck by how billions of dollars have been invested in vaccines to prevent the impact of COVID-19 and so little has been spent developing treatments for the billions of people worldwide who have been infected. (During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, $137-billion in public monies were invested in vaccines, compared with $7-billion in therapeutics.)
“Vaccines are important but we need a second shield. We need therapeutics,” he said.
The Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics will be located at the world-renowned Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne.
Sharon Lewin, director of the institute, said she is thrilled by the “transformational” donation and the opportunities the investment will create.
“New therapeutic platforms offer the potential to protect the world from future pandemics,” she said. “Without them, the next pandemic could be an even greater threat to people and society.”
Dr. Lewin, a well-known AIDS researcher, said HIV is a perfect example of the power of therapeutics. While there is no vaccine to protect against HIV infection, the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART) has dramatically curtailed both infections and deaths.
(Worldwide, 28.7 million of the 38.4 million living with HIV are taking ART.)
“We can’t afford to put all our eggs in the vaccine basket,” she said.
Dr. Lewin said that developing lifesaving treatments is a long-term process, but the ultimate goal is to create molecular “plug and play” platforms that would allow new drug treatments to be developed within weeks or months of a new pathogen being discovered.
“There will be new technologies that we can barely even imagine now,” she said.
Dr. Lewin said the Cumming centre will focus on basic science, such as “high-potential molecular platforms and computational techniques.” It will not produce drugs, but partner with industry.
Mr. Cumming, whose gift has been described as one of the largest ever philanthropic donations to biomedical research, said there were several factors that prompted it, beginning with global health being essential to a prosperous society. “I’m interested in how we can build more resiliency, a global fire department to respond to future threats.”
The businessman said Australia’s national and state governments have invested heavily in a biotechnology hub, and world-class institutions such as the Doherty Institute in particular. The federal government recently invested 650 million Australian dollars ($583.3-million) to create the Australian Institute for Infectious Disease, modelled after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mr. Cumming was also struck by the congenial atmosphere, how top researchers have been recruited, and how the research enterprise “seems to work seamlessly” in Australia, with excellent co-operation between industry, academia and clinicians.
“Excellence comes from concentration of knowledge,” he said.
Mr. Cumming was raised in a medical family in Kingston, but studied economics and then gravitated to business, where he has been very successful. He has been a director of more than 30 companies on four continents, and has invested in everything from oil and mining to real estate. He is a citizen of both Canada and New Zealand but has lived in Australia since 2020.
In 2014, Mr. Cumming donated $100-million to his alma mater, the University of Calgary, for research on mental health and neuroscience. In response, the medical school was renamed the Cumming School of Medicine.
He also founded and continues to fund The Ryman Prize, a global, $250,000 prize annually awarded to advancements that positively affect quality of life for the elders.
The Doherty Institute is named after professor Peter Doherty, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for discovering how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells.
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Editor’s note: A story about a philanthropic gift by Geoffrey Cumming said he divides his time between Canada and New Zealand. That was true earlier, but he has lived in Australia since 2020.