Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson’s attack on Australian scientists

Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson has called, irresponsibly and without offering any evidence, for Australian scientists to cease collaboration in virus research with their overseas colleagues.

Senator Henderson was responding to media reports that Chinese scientists from the Wuhan Virology Institute had earlier worked at CSIRO’s laboratories in Geelong.

But her demand would not only mean ending collaboration with China. CSIRO collaborates with a range of countries in virology and other areas of medical research.

These countries include the US, European heavyweights such as the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as China and Singapore.

This research is acknowledged to be of mutual benefit for all the countries involved.

Senator Henderson ought to know that the work CSIRO undertakes at its world-leading animal research laboratories in Geelong is heavily regulated.

The agency is subject to strict scrutiny under the Defence Trade Controls Act and the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act, as well as various other federal and state laws and professional ethical guidelines.

Any breaches of these laws have to be reported to Parliament, and no such breaches have occurred.

CSIRO’s annual reports to Parliament clearly explain the importance of global collaboration and connections for the role that the animal health laboratories play in research on viruses and other diseases.

Australia’s security agencies have never raised international scientific collaboration as a problem with CSIRO.

There has been no evidence of a breach of national security or of Australia’s biosecurity controls because of this collaboration.

On the contrary, last week even US intelligence agencies stated that the novel coronavirus was not produced in a laboratory. It arose naturally.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the same, but Senator Henderson does not seem to have caught up with these assessments.

Science is an international activity, and it is in our mutual interest to acquire and share everything we can learn about how infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans.

It was CSIRO scientists, for example, who showed how the hendra virus, which killed four people, was transmitted from fruit bats to horses and then to humans.

CSIRO employs 330 postdoctoral researchers each year, and about half of these come from overseas.

That is how we build our national research capabilities while also offering opportunities to these talented young scientists from around the world.

It is all the more vital to maintain this collaboration during the global health crisis, and in the wake of the degrading of research capabilities in our pharmaceutical industry.

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