ESR's Mich elle Christensen with daughter Scarlett.
ESR’s WellKiwis Infant study has now recruited its 500th baby, who is set to play a key role in helping ESR experts
understand how more effective vaccines could be developed by harnessing the fighting power of our immune systems.
Principal Investigator Dr Sue Huang says the WellKiwis team is delighted to have recruited 500 babies to the study and
extends her warmest congratulations to whānau. Sue says while reaching 500 enrolled babies is a special milestone, more
infants and their families are needed to join, to ensure the study best reflects our communities.
“Although WellKiwis was initially a study focused on influenza, it has now evolved to include COVID-19. This means
Wellington families that join WellKiwis have the chance to be part of a study covering the most significant public
health event in our lifetimes: the COVID-19 pandemic. As a seven-year study, WellKiwis is uniquely placed to record the
impact of COVID-19 in the New Zealand context.”
ESR’s scientists are gaining important insights about how COVID-19, influenza and other viruses spread throughout the
region in near real-time thanks to WellKiwis reporting, with data regularly published on the study website
. It clearly shows when the current COVID-19 wave peaked in Wellington, with a large jump in COVID-19 cases recorded
among participants including infants during the week ending 6 March.
“While we all hope we never encounter a virus like COVID-19 again, we have to be prepared. One of the best things that
can inform our planning is the rich insights studies like WellKiwis yield,” Sue says.
Affirming Sue’s eminence as a virology expert, an article she co-authored with Tim Wood (ESR Biostatistician) and
Richard J Webby (St Jude Children’s Research Hospital), looking at the impact of COVID-19 on influenza and other
respiratory viral infections in New Zealand, was published in the prestigious Nature Communications. Accessed over
46,000 times, it is among the journal’s top 25 most read articles of 2021.
For many of the families with children enrolled in WellKiwis Infant, the best aspect of the study is that they get
unprecedented information about the health of their tamariki, such as if they have caught the COVID-19, flu or RSV. The
study is monitoring all participating household members to understand whether and how the first COVID positive person
passed the virus on to other family members. Some symptomatic and asymptomatic WellKiwis participants learned that they
had COVID-19 through this active surveillance and could isolate accordingly, helping protect others.
Sue says communities from Upper and Lower Hutt are well-represented on the study, which is pleasing given WellKiwis is
led from ESR’s Wallaceville Science Centre. However, the team is keen to recruit more families from the northern
Wellington suburbs, and especially Porirua.
For one Whitby whānau, joining WellKiwis was something of a no-brainer after finding out the study could lead to the
development of better vaccines that might ultimately save lives. Michelle Christensen is a Senior Scientist in ESR’s
Forensic Toxicology group and heard about WellKiwis from Sue during a seminar.
“I was pregnant at the time, so it particularly caught my attention and we signed up for the WellKiwis Infant study
"If my daughter Scarlett has any cold or flu symptoms, we'll know quickly whether it is flu or COVID, and we will be
assisted in making sure she gets healthy as quickly as possible. This continues for the next seven years.
“It's great to know Scarlett is part of a study that is helping to fight the flu (and COVID) around the world. The work
being done by the WellKiwis team is so important for the development of flu vaccines and to help protect the world from
different flu viruses.
“This has become even more important now the world has seen what can happen during a pandemic. I think everybody would
agree that we should be doing everything we can to avoid such a pandemic from occurring again," says Michelle.
Michelle says the WellKiwis team makes it easy to participate in the study. And, as unpleasant as it might seem to have
a swab taken, it only lasts a few seconds and is helping global research.
"I would strongly encourage all expectant mums and families to participate, as it's a really worthwhile study and easy
to participate in. I wondered how our four-year-old son would handle having a blood sample taken, but the team made him
feel totally at ease, so there were no issues at all.
“I am proud that myself and my family are part of such a great study,” Michelle says.