How a chat over a glass of wine turned into a $250 million research fund for Melbourne

Key points

  • Philanthropist Geoffrey Cumming has donated $250 million to the Doherty Institute to help establish The Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics.
  • The Victorian government will provide $75 million over 10 years, and is hoping the Commonwealth follows suit. 
  • The genesis for the bold vision was a meeting over wine in the depths of Melbourne’s chilly winter last year. 

Professor Sharon Lewin can’t recall the date, but it was a Monday night in June last year, in the depths of Victoria’s winter and sometime between lockdowns four and five, when a wealthy philanthropist walked into her office with $250 million he was itching to donate.

The Doherty Institute’s director says she’d had a “really crappy day” at work. But when the philanthropist, Canadian-born businessman Geoff Cumming, arrived with Victoria’s Lieutenant-Governor, James Angus, the trio gathered in the institute’s boardroom and talk turned to big money, science and grand visions.

Peter Doherty (left) and Premier Daniel Andrews with Geoff and Anna Cumming at the announcement of The Cumming Centre for Global Pandemic Therapeutics on Wednesday.Credit:Eddie Jim

“I offered him a glass of wine,” Lewin recalls. “I don’t know why, I have never ever done that in a work meeting in my entire life.” It helped, she said, that he was a “really affable guy”.

Cumming told Lewin he wanted to put his millions towards a medical cause that would advance science. There were two conditions: it must fund a lofty and transformational idea, and other donors must support the project.

“COVID-19 had a profound impact on society,” Cumming told The Age on Wednesday. “There were millions of fatalities, and many people are going to be scarred with mental health issues, but there’s also the economic cost of $30 trillion.

“But the greatest cost is a shattering in political consensus. We need a stable society so one of the driving factors … was I wanted … to make human society more stable going forward because pandemics are wildly disruptive.”

Professor Sharon Lewin, infectious diseases expert and the director of the Doherty Institute.Credit:Simon Schluter

Cumming was born in Canada, holds a New Zealand passport, but now lives in Melbourne, where he endured its lockdowns. When introducing him to Lewin, Angus had talked her up as one of the brightest and most eminent scientists in Australia, doing important work at the Doherty Institute.

“Geoff put to me he had a few criteria, and one was he wanted it to be transformational and change the future for humanity,” Lewin says.

“In that first meeting, I spoke a lot about antivirals.”

Unlike vaccines, antivirals do not prevent infection, but treat them after a person becomes infected. She had spent most of her career working on HIV, where antivirals are the only real treatment, and she saw their absence in COVID-19 as “a gap in our pandemic response”.

Cumming urged her to think big and bold, and promised if she could get a proposal together, her research would be funded over a 25-year period. The philanthropist says he remembers going home that night thinking Lewin was a “truly remarkable person” and the institute would be the perfect place for his $250 million.

Just over 14 months later, the Cumming Global Centre for Pandemic Therapeutics was announced. The research centre, the first of its kind in the world, will focus on developing, testing and commercialising new treatments such as antivirals to tackle infectious diseases. After first being based at the Doherty Institute, the centre will move to the new Australian Institute for Infectious Diseases, which is set to open in 2027.

Assembling a team

After that first meeting, Lewin assembled a team of 50 scientists to pull together some ideas. Within three months they had a shortlist of big projects in diagnostics, immune response and public health. The group needed to reassure themselves their pitch was not being replicated elsewhere – that they were filling a big gap and their centre would make a “huge impact”.

After his initial meeting with Lewin, Cumming also met Nobel laureate Professor Peter Doherty and University of Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor Professor James McCluskey, who also spoke about filling the gaps in our COVID-19 response with antivirals.

Medical Research Minister Jaala Pulford says the pandemic research centre will be momentous for Victoria.Credit:Justin McManus

Meanwhile, Lewin held three meetings with her scientific advisory board, comprising some of the world’s most eminent scientists – including Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who won a Nobel Prize for discovering HIV – and by October they were convinced about what they wanted to take back to Cummings: a centre for researching and developing therapeutic treatments that stop a virus from replicating.

In the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewin says, the world invested $137 billion in vaccine research, but just $7 billion in researching therapeutics to help those who had tested positive. If antiviral medication had been approved and disseminated during the early stages of the pandemic, she says, millions of lives could have been saved.

“While we will always need vaccines to effectively manage viruses and control pandemics, antiviral therapeutics that target the virus actually also play a really important role for those who become infected,” Lewin says.

She was confident the Victorian government would come on board. In February, she put Cumming in a Zoom meeting with Medical Research Minister Jaala Pulford and Treasurer Tim Pallas.

For them, the proposal was a no-brainer. They would provide $75 million over 10 years – an investment they believe will be returned many-fold. Weeks later, Premier Daniel Andrews, a former health minister, also gave his approval via Zoom.

‘The greatest advantage’

“The Premier had excellent knowledge,” Cumming says. “He didn’t have in-depth knowledge [about what Lewin was planning], but this fit very well into his broader view of where he wanted to take the state over time … so it was very logical for him.”

Canadian businessman Geoff Cumming and wife Anna outside the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity on Wednesday.Credit:Eddie Jim

Pulford will meet federal Health Minister Mark Butler this week and the Andrews government is confident the Commonwealth will match the state’s funding, cementing Melbourne as one of the three leading cities in the world for science and medical research, alongside London and Boston .

So why did Cumming, a Canadian-born businessman whose business is in New Zealand decide to make the largest philanthropic donation to Australian medical research ever?

“As a businessman, you have to go where the greatest advantage is,” he says. “Victorian governments over successive years have invested substantially in medical research, and now you’re getting the pay-off.

“There seems to be a high degree of collegiality between the state, Commonwealth and organisations. Also, Australia’s response to the pandemic. Was it perfect? No. Was it outstanding? Yes. And lastly, many of the pandemics originate in Asia, and Australia is close to that continent.”

Pulford describes the announcement as a momentous day for Victoria’s scientific community.

“The Cumming family have looked around the world to find the best,” she says.

“And this is where they came.

“We have tens of thousands of scientists making extraordinary discoveries, doing important work that is about changing lives of people, saving lives.”

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