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2021 Prime Minister's Prize for Science

Professor Edward C. Holmes

The University of Sydney’s Professor Edward C. Holmes has been awarded the 2021 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, for his transformative role in the scientific response to COVID-19.

Professor Holmes is considered the global authority on the evolution of viral diseases. For almost 30 years, he has pioneered the study of how viruses evolve and jump between species, including humans, to spread and cause disease. Using genome sequence data, he has transformed our understanding of diseases such as HIV, Ebola and SARS, which have affected major populations.

In early 2020, Professor Holmes was the first person in the world to publicly share the genome sequence of COVID-19. Sharing this data was critical in helping the global response to the pandemic. It fast-tracked research efforts around the world and enabled work on designing a vaccine to begin within days, saving countless lives.

He is now at the forefront of research on the origins and evolution of COVID-19.

Watch a video about their work

[Music plays and the image shows a slide showing the Australian Government Crest, Prime Minister’s Prize for Science medallion animated and turning, and the words 2021 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and the name, Professor Edward C. Holmes]

[Image changes to show the top of a university building, and the camera pans down to show Eddie walking through the archways in the building]

Prof Edward C. Holmes: My name’s Professor Eddie Holmes. I work at the University of Sydney and my work focuses on the evolution of viruses.

[Image changes to show a facing view of Eddie talking to the camera]

So ever since I was a, a child in high school, I, I've been fascinated by human evolution, particularly to understand how the human species got to where it is today.

[Image changes to show Eddie entering an office and sitting at a desk and opening a laptop, and the camera zooms in on Eddie’s face, and then on the laptop screen he is looking at]

Over the past 30 years, my work has focused on trying to understand how viruses evolve.

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In particular, I’ve been interested in trying to understand how viruses are able to jump from one animal species to another like humans, and then start to cause an epidemic.

[Images move through of a rear and then side view of Eddie at work, a close view of a microscope slide under a microscope, and then a view of the slide through the microscope lens]

My research has allowed me to understand viruses like HIV, the cause of AIDS, Ebola, Dengue and Zika.

[Image changes to show Eddie walking along on a footpath, and then images move through of a rear view of Eddie walking, Eddie seated in a chair reading a book, and then Eddie talking to the camera]

So my research on what became known as COVID-19, began in early January 2020, after my colleagues in China rapidly generated the complete genome sequence of the virus that causes that disease.

[Images move through to show a side view of Eddie working on a laptop, the screen he is working on, data on the screen, and then a side view of Eddie working on a laptop]

And I was then able to publish that genome sequence online and that allowed researchers globally to download that sequence and use it to generate COVID tests and COVID vaccines.

[Image changes to show a diagram of the spike protein, and then the image changes to show DNA symbols moving over the screen and researchers can be seen in the background]

Releasing the genome sequence of the virus online was, was a critical moment in the COVID-19 pandemic and it really marked the start of a scientific response to the virus.

[Image changes to show Eddie talking to the camera]

My goal now is to try and stop a pandemic like COVID-19 ever happening again.

[Images move through of an aerial view looking down on planes grounded at an airport, the waiting area of an airport with only three travellers seated, and a plane in the sky]

So what COVID-19 has told us is that viruses do not respect international borders.

[Image changes to show a robotic machine filling multiple test tubes automatically, and then the image changes to show a close view of a test tube being capped]

And because of that, it's critical that scientists internationally collaborate as much and as freely as possible.

[Image changes to show Eddie talking to the camera]

To receive the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science is amazing recognition, not just for me, but for all my collaborators and colleagues in Australia and other, other countries, who've helped build a network to understand how diseases, like COVID-19 appear and spread in the population.

[Images move through of a close view of Eddie moving down a verandah at the university]

The key thing about being a scientist is to be curious every day.

[Image changes to show Eddie looking through a book]

And it's that curiosity that's rewarded every day, because you discover new things.

[Image changes to show a COVID testing station, and then the image changes to show a close view of a COVID tester taking a swab from a patient]

Science is the best way we have as a species of countering some of the major problems that it faces.

[Images move through of a close view of a microscope, a diagram of the spike protein rotating, and then Eddie talking to the camera]

And that's been shown perfectly with COVID-19, because of scientists vaccines were developed within months of the virus first being discovered. If it wasn't for science, we would be in a far worse position now with COVID than we are.

[Image changes to show a new slide showing the Australian Government Crest, Prime Minister’s Prize for Science medallion animated and turning, and the words 2021 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and the name, Professor Edward C. Holmes]

See their acceptance speech

[Image shows a slide showing the Australian Government Crest, Prime Minister’s Prize for Science medallion animated and turning, and the words 2021 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and the name, Professor Edward C. Holmes]

[Image changes to show Eddie dressed in a suit and tie talking to the camera and a Prize medallion and text appears: Professor Edward C. Holmes]

It's a truly humbling experience to be recognized in this way. Of course, I'm really just a cheerleader for a huge research effort that involves very many people and I'd just like to thank a few of them now. First and foremost, I'd like to thank my wife Rachel, and my son Scott, for their tireless support over many years.

I'd also like to thank the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Science and Technology for their recognition, and for the Australian Government, for their generous research funding over many years. I'd like to thank the University of Sydney for backing me in everything I've wanted to do. I'd like to thank, my research group, my collaborators globally, who've helped establish a really tremendous research network. The last 18 months have taught me two important things. First, scientists must share their data as openly and freely as possible. Second, society must trust in science because it's science that will help us solve some of the great challenges that we face like COVID.

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