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NZ's 'go-to' Covid-19 expert Michael Baker wins PM's Science Communication Prize

After a year of producing a successful Covid-19 elimination strategy, Professor Michael Baker, New Zealand’s "go-to" science expert has won the the 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize.

Michael Baker. Source: 1 NEWS

As part of the Government’s Covid technical advisory group, Baker pioneered a national elimination strategy that he says has now become the “dominant model” across the Asia-Pacific region.

He was the lead author of the world’s first-published elimination strategy which was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal on 2 April 2020.

He was, he says, hugely relieved when the measures were adopted by the Government.

“I felt absolutely compelled to communicate because at some points I thought New Zealand was heading off a cliff, particularly a year ago when we were at a real crossroads as to whether to follow a flatten the curve approach or to forge a different direction to eliminate the virus.”

Baker says “there’s a huge global influence for zero-Covid" that he believes has been spearheaded by the strategy.

He said New Zealand succeeded in its approach against Covid by “doing the opposite of what the World Health Organisation advised – they advised in March 2020 to keep borders open, use lockdowns as a last resort and not use masks.

“We used lockdown at the start. That was the right thing to do, as that eliminates community transmission,” Baker told 1 NEWS.

“The difference is, it’s all about your strategy.

“Those countries in Europe were dominated by an influenza model or even herd immunity – we embraced an elimination model through an initial stay-at-home order for seven weeks.

“The US, UK and Europe underestimated the virus,” he says, adding "a lot of governments also haven’t listened to the science.

“Once they started down a certain path, it’s very difficult to change direction,” he says.

Even Australia he believes, fell behind by not having a national strategy.

“Australia had differences across the eight different states. In Australia there was no strong federal leadership.

“One of the benefits of the elimination model, is it gives you single-minded focus.”

National Public Health Communication Centre

The prize comes with $75,000 and the majority of this money will go to support the establishment of a Public Health Communication Centre to be based in the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago, Wellington.

Baker says he is pleased scientists are getting a platform from which to communicate, especially is a crisis.

“I’m delighted, I think this is a statement that scientists need to get out and communicate and you sometimes have to use your best judgement,” he says.

Baker will be the director of the centre and says it “will get up and running later this year”.

“I think it’s partly to build on the momentum we’ve got now where evidence and science will be a major input into Government decision-making,” Baker says.

The centre will also address issues such as how various challenges to public health will be managed. Such as “climate change, New Zealand transitioning to a more sustainable food system, poverty, and rising inequalities”.

He has been a Professor of Public Health at the University since 2013 and is Director of the Health Environment Infection Research Unit (HEIRU) and Leader of Co-Search, a Health Research Council funded group involved in multi-disciplinary research to support the Covid-19 response.

Baker has published more than 25 peer-reviewed publications on Covid-19, including in the world’s highest-impact medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet and The BMJ.

Since the start of the pandemic he and Department of Public Health colleagues Professor Nick Wilson and Dr Amanda Kvalsvig have produced around 50 science blogs and features on Covid-19 which have been published on platforms such as The Guardian and The Conversation.

Baker was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to public health science in the 2021 New Year Honours. He was also recently named Wellingtonian of the Year for his contribution to shaping New Zealand’s successful science-based Covid-19 response.

He studied at the University of Auckland, where he graduated MB ChB and earned a Diploma in Obstetrics, and at the University of Otago, where he obtained a Diploma in Public Health.

The Science Communication prize is awarded to a practising scientist who can demonstrate an interest, passion and aptitude for science communication and public engagement, or to someone who has developed expertise in public engagement or communicating complex scientific or technological information to the public or science community.