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Published: 2020-06-25 08:57 | Updated: 2020-06-25 14:52

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed research conditions

Photo: Erik Cronberg

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed research conditions. There are two sides of these new times we have entered since the outbreak of the coronavirus: while COVID-19-related research is advancing at record speed and grants are coming in from donors, research councils and the EU, other research has gone into decline or even stalled, a situation that is particularly serious for clinical projects.

Many initiatives have been taken for research projects on the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 and on possible vaccines. Clinical trials are being compiled, for example, and a biobank has been set up for COVID-19 samples with the help of external grants. COVID-19 projects have been inventoried to guide major donors on where money is needed, and many collaborations have emerged in the battle against the virus.

However, at the same time, another battle is underway, concerning other medical research.

So says Birgitta Henriques Normark, academic vice president for research at Karolinska Institutet. As head of the university’s Committee for Research she sees the impact of the pandemic on KI’s researchers and their projects.

“Research continues, but more slowly. Some clinical projects have stopped completely. It’s a very tough situation for many researchers, both for those doing basic research as well as for those doing clinical research,” she says.

Clinical studies put on pause

There are many reasons for this. Those with a combined appointment with the clinics have gone over to more healthcare service, and their clinical research time is only sparsely granted in the current circumstances.

Birgitta Henriques Normark, photo: Gustav Mårtensson

“Ongoing clinical research studies are judged individually, and some have been put on pause, such as those involving more risky treatments, and those requiring extra visits, tests or interviews, and several clinical studies involving data collection have been postponed,” she continues.

Another consequence of the pandemic is that it is hard to recruit patients over the age of 70, which is delaying certain projects as well.

COVID-19 studies are given priority in the ethical review process, which is good and a critical prerequisite for the research. But new clinical research projects with a different focus are not starting at all.

Some departments are busier owing to newly started COVID-19 projects, while others are seeing a decline in research. Many researchers work from home, and less is done in the laboratory. This slows things down and some experiments will not be done at all. Animal studies are also being postponed.

“KI core facilities are still open, but we see that they are used to a lower extent, thereby generating less income,” says Professor Henriques Normark.

Considerable concern about funding

The adverse consequences for research at KI are many and there is considerable concern about the long-term effects on research and research funding.

“When research gets delayed, it affects the use of grants, which means less revenue for the departments with lower research activities. There is also a concern that grants will be frozen when they can’t be used. The hiring of new recruitments and temporary staff is also affected.”

Other concerns are that qualifying fixed-term appointments cannot be extended, which could harm younger researchers’ future career opportunities. Also, it is worrisome that private financiers might have to cut their medical research funding due to a reduction in dividends.

In other words, concludes Professor Henriques Normark, there are many crucial challenges facing medical research, challenges that the KI management and co-workers will have to tackle in the wake of the pandemic.

“We have to make sure that we get through this acute situation in the best way and we have to see how we can support research in the longer term. Communication and a close dialogue with granting bodies and the government will be vital to these efforts.”