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ESR celebrates Liley Medal win for collaborative COVID-19 research team led by Dr Sarah Jefferies

18 November 2021


The Environmental Science and Research Institute (ESR) welcomes today’s announcement by the Health Research Council (HRC) that the prestigious Liley Medal has been award to a multi-agency team led by ESR Public Health expert, Dr Sarah Jefferies, for a landmark paper analysing the impact of New Zealand’s initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The award, part of the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s Research Honours, is presented for a piece of outstanding work that is internationally recognised and a leading contributor to health research in New Zealand. It highlights the national and global significance of the highly cited epidemiological study which was published in the Lancet Public Health in October 2020.

The study considered the impact of the initial interventions during the first wave on critical outcomes like health equity and highlighted vital considerations for the management of future pandemic responses.

ESR Chief Executive, Peter Lennox, says the recognition reinforced the benefits of building on existing relationships to collaboratively tackle COVID-19.

“The award highlights the importance of a world-class surveillance system informing epidemiological research to better understand the pandemic and plan for the future.

“We count ourselves very lucky at ESR to have the operational and research expertise of Dr Jefferies and many others across our own and collaborating organisations. This means we can draw upon extensive expertise in our drive for better outcomes for New Zealand’s communities. This award is due recognition of the exceptional work the team has done.”

Dr Jefferies, who specialises in communicable disease surveillance and responses to outbreaks, says she and the team are deeply honoured to receive the Medal.

“A study like this doesn’t happen without a great deal of collaboration. Not only from the study authors but from many more individuals and organisations across New Zealand. There has been a myriad of contributors who have all played vital roles in combating COVID-19 in New Zealand, not least the extraordinary efforts of frontline workers, the laboratory staff around the country, and the enormous effort of our public health colleagues. They continue to detect, trace and manage the intensive response to COVID-19, and collect the surveillance data which is vital to informing New Zealand’s ongoing response.”

Dr Jefferies personally acknowledges her ESR colleagues: Charlotte Gilkison; Giles Graham; Dr Virginia Hope; Dr Andrea McNeill; Shevaun Paine; Dr Namrata Prasad; Dr Julia Scott; and Dr Jill Sherwood.

“The team have played key roles in supporting New Zealand’s surveillance system to help inform the response to COVID-19, as well their important inputs to the study. And it has been an honour to collaborate with Distinguished Professor Nigel French and Associate Professor Jonathan Marshall of Massey University, Professor Patricia Priest of Otago University, Drs Petra Muellner and Liang Jang of Epi-Interactive, and Dr Caroline McElnay, Director of Public Health for the Ministry of Health.’”

Co-author Distinguished Professor Nigel French said, “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. 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 5 million New Zealanders.”