• Varsha S Dharan

How has COVID-19 affected R&D and the research community?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the global economy to a halt. How has the pandemic affected research and development, and what are its implications?

Research is a way of life. The findings of research support and shape a wide range of industries and communities, from the latest app to safer cars or breakthrough treatments for illness.

Like most institutions, the University of Oxford has been unusually quiet since the pandemic spread around the world. Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Research projects grind to a halt

As scientists across the globe stayed home to check the spread of COVID-19, research in many disciplines came to an abrupt stop during the lockdown.

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) recently conducted a survey to assess how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting the stem cell community.

They collected responses from people across 52 different countries, with the respondents representing diverse career stages – from undergraduate students to professors, industry scientists to executives, as well as clinicians, and government and non-profit employees.

“The survey revealed that nearly 85% of research laboratories and their activities were impacted by COVID-19. Some laboratories switched to COVID-19 research while 65% of laboratories were mostly or completely shut.” - ISSCR, 2020

Post lockdown, limitations on travel, limited access to the field or laboratory, and other logistical delays have forced researchers whose work focuses on field data or hands-on laboratory work to abandon or delay on-going projects.

A rejuvenated clean lake in Bangalore. The summer causes peak pollution levels in the lakes in Bangalore. Photo credit: Yelahanka Puttenahalli Lake and Bird Conservation Trust

The R&D team at Devic Earth, for example, had to deal with interruptions in developing the Pure Water technology for freshwater lakes. Lake pollution, which usually peaks during the summer, coincided with lockdowns in India.

Interruptions in research programs where data must be gathered during particular events are equally problematic. These include research-based on seasonal changes, where a year may be lost in having missed one season.

Researchers who focus on computational techniques to analyze data that is already in existence, such as bioinformatic analysis of genomic data, were able to continue working. However, that data had to be initially produced in laboratories or research stations. There is always a need to generate new data sets as we validate answers and generate new research questions.

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Clinical trials take a hit

The double-blind placebo-controlled randomized multicentre clinical trial is the gold standard for evaluating new drugs and other medical therapies. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted clinical trials worldwide, slowing or even halting enrolment and delaying follow up.

Thousands of clinical trials have been suspended or stopped due to difficulties during the lockdown. Post-lockdown, recruitment of new subjects and follow up of existing subjects remains problematic.

At the same time, the pandemic has created an unprecedented re-orientation of clinical trial research towards COVID-19, including COVID vaccine trials.

These two aspects — disruption of ongoing programs and the rapid pivot to address the COVID challenge — suggest that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt in clinical trials research for several years.

Financial effects

For researchers at the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine, the effects of COVID-19 include reduction of operational budget as well as temporary furloughs. This has negatively impacted their ability to sustain the on-going work for many projects, including 20 regenerative medicine clinical trials.

The global fund's crunch has forced many government organizations and private industries to cut back on research funding. The timelines for the return of funding to pre-COVID levels is uncertain.

As a result, opportunities for careers in R&D have been affected. Layoffs, furloughs, and hiring freeze have created uncertainty among early researchers, especially within industry.

This, coupled with the redirection of funds to much-needed COVID-19 research, and the effects of a global economic depression worry researchers about the future of their work and their labs.

The situation is expected to be much worse in developing countries with fewer resources.

Scientific conferences

Scientific conferences and forums have long been avenues for the exchange of ideas, networking, and fruitful discussions. Over the last 6 months, nearly all scientific meetings or conferences have been canceled, postponed, or switched to an online format.

In some cases, critical experiments for nearly finished papers languish uncompleted while contract end dates and grant reporting deadlines loom closer and closer.

Discovering new avenues

A college professor holds an online lecture from an empty classroom in Milan. Photo credit : Matteo Corner/EPA

The lockdown has forced researchers to seek unconventional paths to contribute to science beyond working in the lab.

Scientists are busy using their time at home to work on non-laboratory tasks such as preparing grant proposals, doing computational analysis, etc. Many have started online classes and even online lectures or webinars.

At Devic-Earth, the R&D team has engaged itself in completing manuscripts, planning new projects and grant applications, collecting literature, and conducting regular journal clubs.

In addition to regular lab meetings, job interviews, seminars, and even full conferences are now being conducted on virtual meeting platforms.

A number of researchers have used this period to reach out to new collaborators and the scientifically-interested general public over social media.

The path ahead

The ramifications of COVID-19 on R&D are immense.

To restart experimental programs and begin generating new data will take time, considerable expense, and a coordinated effort for researchers, students, suppliers, and funders.

Though the long-term consequences of research and teaching programs will only be revealed in the future, it is likely that this experience will permanently change our lab work, teaching, and remote working.

Many academic laboratories are instituting strict cleaning protocols in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo Credit: Fermin Rodriguez/NurPhoto/Getty

In addition, research laboratories have had to develop COVID prevention protocols to ensure the safety of researchers, while guaranteeing the continuity of the quality research work.

Uncertainty is the only sure thing in these times. The essence of R&D is innovation, and this is the wave we have to ride for successfully navigating the next few years.

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