Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the health and scientific communities have made a formidable effort to respond, within their capabilities, to an unprecedented, rapidly evolving global situation of enormous complexity, and with a high harmful potential.
This situation has led governments to re-realize the importance of a strong and well-endowed health sector, to rediscover epidemiology and public health, and to confirm the need for a powerful research system that can provide scientific evidence and help citizens and authorities to make the best decisions to deal effectively with, for example, a pandemic.
The focus on COVID-19
Frenzied activity began in March 2020 in the field of COVID-19 in both clinical research and translational or basic research. Clinical researchers have designed observational studies and clinical trials and recruited patients with an unprecedented speed. Governments have focused on the urgent need for research on this disease. A huge amount of public and private resources have been mobilized in a record time. This urgency has put the quality of the evaluations to the test. In this regard, the number of articles published on COVID-19 in the last 10 months is impressive, more than 75,000 in 2020 alone, so it will be particularly important that the accountability system is demanding to ensure the efficient use of resources. It has also been confirmed that it is very important to maintain the union of basic, translational and clinical research if we want to carry out research that changes our healthcare practice.
“Clinical researchers have designed observational studies and clinical trials and recruited patients with an unprecedented speed”
Have the other investigations paid the toll?
Most research activities that are not related to COVID-19 were significantly reduced or suspended entirely due to legal restrictions related to the pandemic or logistical, personnel or operational issues.
It is undeniable that the initial impact on clinical research was remarkable. On the one hand, it was necessary for the patients already under study to be followed in conditions that guaranteed their safety, redefining the inclusion criteria to, for example, require SARS-CoV2 tests or the performance of visits in COVID-free areas. On the other hand, it took time to guarantee the safety of patients entering new studies and the requirements of the promoters had to be reformulated to reassure the researchers that they were not putting patients at risk. Once adapted to the new regulations, the efforts made by the research teams have largely mitigated the several-month hiatus that the outbreak of the pandemic caused.
“Once adapted to the new regulations, the efforts made by the research teams have largely mitigated the several-month hiatus that the outbreak of the pandemic caused”
When the availability of tests and personal protective equipment was a very serious problem and confinement was strict, the research system adapted from one day to the other to work from home, contributing in a solidarity way to the reduction of social interaction, such as professionals from so many other disciplines. In most cases, the physical presence at the facilities was limited to what was defined as essential: not to harm ongoing experiments and to perform research on COVID-19. At that time a debate started as to whether the non-COVID-19 investigation was an essential activity or not.
It took a few months to be able to return to a meaningful face-to-face activity in safe conditions. In cases where there were experimental data pending processing, these months were used to prepare and send manuscripts for publication. But as the months passed and the capacity restrictions continued, some of the members of the research teams have lost their enthusiasm and their performance has suffered as it was not possible to obtain more experimental data. We cannot yet gauge the psychological impact on research teams, especially in people who live alone or far from their families. At the same time, we know how difficult it is to keep teams cohesive when only virtual communication is available for so many months.
The challenges of integrity, honest communication and good advice
We do not know if the integrity of the investigation has been a victim of the pandemic. The urgency to obtain results must be compatible with quality research carried out under adequate ethical conditions and scientific integrity. Achieving this is a shared responsibility of the scientific staff and the management and funding bodies.
Scientists also have a responsibility to spread our knowledge honestly and responsibly. In these months, the dissemination of a very high number of scientific communications in public repositories before their review has accelerated. We should know how to communicate that that scientific knowledge is complex and at the same time provisional. This is particularly important when the research community has sent a lot of information directly to social networks without any prior evaluation. It is still too early to know if we have done well.
“We should know how to communicate that that scientific knowledge is complex and at the same time provisional”
Finally, this pandemic has also reminded us that scientists must advise public institutions and society in a transparent and structured way, knowing how to separate this advice from subsequent political decisions.
It is clear that the impact of COVID-19 on research has been great and we are probably not yet able to see all its consequences, both positive and negative. Now that we are entering the so-called new normal and in the midst of a very serious economic and social crisis, our leaders have the challenge of confirming that a strong commitment to assistance and biosanitary research is one of the bases of the reconstruction of our country. We scientists must live up to the conviction that the knowledge we generate is essential for our society to be prepared for the challenge of future pandemics.
The Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) is a biomedical research center created in 2004. It is participated by the Bellvitge University Hospital and the Viladecans Hospital of the Catalan Institute of Health, the Catalan Institute of Oncology, the University of Barcelona and the City Council of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.
IDIBELL is a member of the Campus of International Excellence of the University of Barcelona HUBc and is part of the CERCA institution of the Generalitat de Catalunya. In 2009 it became one of the first five Spanish research centers accredited as a health research institute by the Carlos III Health Institute. In addition, it is part of the “HR Excellence in Research” program of the European Union and is a member of EATRIS and REGIC. Since 2018, IDIBELL has been an Accredited Center of the AECC Scientific Foundation (FCAECC).