The BIH QUEST Center together with the German Network for Evidence-based Medicine (DNEbM) and the German Academy of Ethics in Medicine (AEM) urge swift and transparent action to determine whether the measures to contain the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, such as school closures and contact bans, are achieving the desired results while being justified in terms of the numerous health, social and economic side effects. The partners have launched a call to establish a COVID-19 evidence task force that will discuss how a professional prioritization, coordination and communication of research on the containment measures can be implemented. The scientists have published the call here.
“As a bioethicist, I see it as my responsibility to investigate the societal ramifications of public policy actions,” says Professor Daniel Strech, deputy director of the BIH QUEST Center. So together with his colleagues at the German Network for Evidence-based Medicine (DNEbM) and the German Academy of Ethics in Medicine (AEM), he has called on representatives of the different social, economic and health sciences to exchange ideas and debate how the effectiveness and harm of the measures enacted – such as the closure of schools, businesses and public institutions and the restrictions placed on contact between people, so-called non-pharmacological interventions (NPIs) – can be assessed in a swift and sufficiently meaningful way.
Cohort studies on population-wide infection rates
“Every year in Germany we expect flu outbreaks to be responsible for thousands of hospital admissions and hundreds to thousands of deaths, but flu vaccinations are not compulsory for healthcare workers. The new Sars-CoV-2 virus, on the other hand, requires drastic interventions in public life according to many experts, although we have no experience with this form of intervention,” Prof. Strech says, while adding: “We should make it a high priority to clarify whether the measures enacted are sufficiently effective to contain the spread of the virus to the extent anticipated. We also need to study what harms may result from such measures: How many elderly people in need of care are now living in isolation in nursing homes without contact with their family or in their homes without being looked after by foreign care workers? How many people are suffering damage to their health because they can’t be operated on? How is family life negatively affected? How many businesses are in danger of bankruptcy? We need to carry out supporting research in the medical and social science fields.”
In addition to the continuously updated figures on confirmed infections and deaths, it may also be helpful to conduct cohort studies on population-wide infection rates in asymptomatic persons. Such cohort studies would provide, among other information, data on how effective the measures are over time and when would be a good time to end the measures.
Coordinating the most urgently needed research
The scientists call for the prompt establishment of a COVID-19 task force that should reach an agreement on what data on COVID-19 is needed, in what priority and in what quality. In addition to determining the prioritization, the task force should also assume responsibility for the coordination and financing of the most urgently needed research. Moreover, the scientists recommend that society be informed of these activities and the resulting findings in a clear, objective and scientifically based manner.
“The experiences and outcomes of a national task force on COVID-19 evidence are relevant not only for the current pandemic,” Prof. Strech stresses, “but also for long-term planning and for future emergencies.”