The COVID-19 pandemic has turned life, travel, and the economy upside down all around the world. But what impact has it had on research and research practices, in general? In this Special Feature, we investigate.
Last month, Medical News Today published an interview with Dr. Catherine Oldenburg, an infectious disease epidemiologist and co-lead researcher of a new clinical trial investigating a potential treatment for COVID-19.
In the interview, Dr. Oldenburg commented on some unexpected ways in which the pandemic has affected how scientists conduct their research.
Items that were readily available before the pandemic, such as laboratory or clinical trial supplies, have become more difficult to get hold of due to restrictions on international movement.
“It’s interesting how many things we took for granted before COVID-19 — you know, [like the] moving of supplies,” Dr. Oldenburg remarked in the interview.
What else has changed in the landscape of research as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
In this Special Feature, MNT “takes the pulse” of the research community to see where it now stands.
With the world facing a new coronavirus, the immediate focus across the research community is — rightly so — on finding vaccines and treatments that will work effectively against SARS-CoV-2.
But what has happened to the rest of the medical research centered around equally important causes?
In a comment piece that appeared in The Lancet on May 16, the journal’s editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, mused on the fact that, after the pandemic started, COVID-19-related research almost monopolized the publication’s focus, to the detriment of other topics that the editorial team had planned on covering.
“At The Lancet, we had planned to give child and adolescent health particular attention in 2020,” Horton wrote.
He also confessed to having planned on “establishing a new platform of work on migration and health, […] and continuing to advance the program we began last year on the synergies between diet, disease, and planetary ecosystems.”
The team dropped all of these targets to focus on advances in COVID-19 research. However, Horton recognized that other public health topics have remained no less pressing despite the fact that attention has shifted away from them.
“We are not alone in this difficulty. The monumental challenges presented by the Sustainable Development Goals [outlined by the United Nations] have also been pushed to one side by COVID-19. Extreme poverty, gender inequity, safe water and sanitation, and the promotion of peace through health have all become casualties of the pandemic.”
– Richard Horton
“[A]ll of us who work in global health must ensure that we don’t turn away from a wider perspective on health,” Horton warned.
While governments and different funding bodies have been investing millions in COVID-19 research and emergency aid, the situation looks very different for other research areas.
In an official briefing that the European University Association (EUA) published in May, they noted that the pandemic is likely to affect income sources for universities across Europe and that this impact may have far-reaching ramifications.
“As the countries digest the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis, there is a significant risk that public funding allocations across Europe will decrease in the next 2 to 4 years, when considering the enhanced competition for public resources across various sectors of the economy,” EUA representatives warned in the document.
The organization’s spokespeople also expressed a worry that “[r]esearch contracts, philanthropic sources, and other types of university income will also be affected” by a probable postpandemic economic recession and that competition for European Union grants may increase to an unsustainable point.
A report that the Australian Academy of Science published in May suggests that, in Australian universities, approximately 7,000 research staff may lose their jobs over the next year and that about 9,000 international research students may not get a chance to resume their research by the end of 2020.
The same report also notes that as far as medical research is concerned, “[w]hile some institutes and teams within institutes have experienced increased workload and funding, the closure of most laboratories is disrupting almost all lab-based research not directly related to COVID-19.”
In the United States, researchers have also reported scaling down all research work that is not directly related to COVID-19, meaning that resources are being wasted, and progress on some studies — including cancer and dementia research — has halted.
Speaking to the BMJ, Ben Ewen-Campen, a researcher at Harvard University, recalls the striking image of fruit flies, which scientists use as an aid in genetic research, being thrown out as waste in an effort to “save” researchers a trip to the laboratory during the pandemic.
“Flies that I’ve been working on 4 or 5 years, I just watched them go to waste in one fell swoop,” Ewen-Campen told the BMJ.
And the fact that clinical study participants have been unable to come into laboratories over fears and restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic has also meant that various clinical trials are in hiatus or that researchers will be unable to complete datasets.
“If patients don’t come in, and you can’t collect data on safety and clinical outcomes, you can’t include those patients in the final study.”
– Dr. Charbel Moussa, neurology specialist, speaking to the BMJ
Beyond these drawbacks, however, the pandemic has also ushered in some unexpected improvements.
For one thing, scientists and editors of scientific journals are upping their game in identifying and eliminating misleading information and poorly conducted research.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to what the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN call an “infodemic” — an informational pandemic in which accurate data become mixed in with fake news and false leads.
For example, Manlio De Domenico — a researcher affiliated with the Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) in Trento, Italy — has, in collaboration with colleagues from FBK and Harvard, designed and set up an online COVID-19 infodemics observatory.
The observatory uses artificial intelligence programming to analyze the nature and likely reliability of Tweets responding to and disseminating information about the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also driven researchers to move the bulk of academic events, such as workshops and conferences, online, and to start using videoconferencing tools more often. This approach has proved popular in the global research community.
Speaking to Nature, Julieta Gruszko — a researcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who participated in the online American Physical Society April Meeting — said, “I was able to attend a wider variety of sessions than I normally would have, since switching between parallel sessions was far more seamless.”
A reader poll that Nature ran online from April 20 to May 4, 2020, also revealed that many researchers had been willing participants in online events during the pandemic.
To the question “Have you attended a conference that was run virtually
as a result of the pandemic?,” 41% of 499 respondents replied in the affirmative, and 27% said, “No, but I plan to.”
When the poll asked if they thought that some meetings should continue to be virtual after the pandemic, 81% of 486 respondents said “yes.”
Going forward, the challenge facing academic communities all over the world will be to preserve such positive changes while bracing for the impact that a possible economic crash may have on upcoming and ongoing research.