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Faust, A., Sierawska, A., Krüger, K. et al. Challenges and proposed solutions in making clinical research on COVID-19 ethical: a status quo analysis across German research ethics committees. BMC Med Ethics22, 96 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12910-021-00666-8



In the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the biomedical research community’s attempt to focus the attention on fighting COVID-19, led to several challenges within the field of research ethics. However, we know little about the practical relevance of these challenges for Research Ethics Committees (RECs).


We conducted a qualitative survey across all 52 German RECs on the challenges and potential solutions with reviewing proposals for COVID-19 studies. We de-identified the answers and applied thematic text analysis for the extraction and synthesis of challenges and potential solutions that we grouped under established principles for clinical research ethics.


We received an overall response rate of 42%. The 22 responding RECs reported that they had assessed a total of 441 study proposals on COVID-19 until 21 April 2020. For the review of these proposals the RECs indicated a broad spectrum of challenges regarding (1) social value (e.g. lack of coordination), (2) scientific validity (e.g. provisional study planning), (3) favourable risk–benefit ratio (e.g. difficult benefit assessment), (4) informed consent (e.g. strict isolation measures), (5) independent review (e.g. lack of time), (6) fair selection of trial participants (e.g. inclusion of vulnerable groups), and (7) respect for study participants (e.g. data security). Mentioned solutions ranged from improved local/national coordination, over guidance on modified consent procedures, to priority setting across clinical studies.


RECs are facing a broad spectrum of pressing challenges in reviewing COVID-19 studies. Some challenges for consent procedures are well known from research in intensive care settings but are further aggravated by infection measures. Other challenges such as reviewing several clinical studies at the same time that potentially compete for the recruitment of in-house COVID-19 patients are unique to the current situation. For some of the challenges the proposed solutions in our survey could relatively easy be translated into practice. Others need further conceptual and empirical research. Our findings together with the increasing body of literature on COVID-19 research ethics, and further stakeholder engagement should inform the development of hands-on guidance for researchers, funders, RECs, and further oversight bodies.