As an unprecedented global health emergency, COVID-19 has also significantly altered the research process: Health research involved in the fight against the novel coronavirus is faster, more open, and more collaborative than usual. And yet critics are warning of a loss of quality standards due to the enormous social pressure in the search for new therapeutic agents and vaccines. On October 25, 2020, scientists from the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) join other guests at the World Health Summit 2020 to discuss the changes in conditions for health research and translational medicine during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
“The changes are triggering wide-ranging debates and have been met with both approval and criticism, even among us scientists,” says Professor Ulrich Dirnagl, who holds a chair at the BIH and is founding director of the BIH QUEST Center. The benefits for scientists include fast preprint publications, generous data exchange, and expedited ethics-review approval for clinical trials. Critics, however, complain of a one-sided focus on coronavirus research, potentially weaker data protection, and that trials are being “waved through” too quickly without thorough ethics reviews. Most controversies existed prior to the pandemic, for example with regard to openness, the evaluation of routinely collected health data, or the secondary use of existing therapeutic agents. Other COVID-19-related topics are relatively new, explains Dirnagl’s deputy, Professor Daniel Strech: “Non-COVID-19 researchers are complaining, for example, about a lack of interest and dwindling resources.”
More collaboration on research into other diseases?
Conditions have also changed for translational medicine. “We are currently experiencing an unprecedented willingness to make joint progress,” says BIH Professor Christof von Kalle, who heads the BIH Clinical Study Center at Charité and coordinates coronavirus research at the BIH and Charité. “As far back as May, we agreed on a consensus data set for use in Germany’s national network against COVID-19, which is used by all university hospitals. This is a decisive step forward in the fight against the pandemic, because it enables us to learn from each and every patient.”
The rapid changes in current biomedical research thus go beyond the quality and ethics of COVID-19 research specifically, and lead to questions about future developments in all research: What can we learn from these changes? Are they here for the long term? Why should global research on other deadly diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, cancer, or dementia be less open and less collaborative? And how should we shape these changes to advance the global health research system?
For the panel discussion at the World Health Summit, Dirnagl and Strech have invited speakers representing different steps of the research process. Professor Christopher Baum, chief executive officer of the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH), and his institution represent translational medicine, which describes the transfer of research results from the laboratory to the patient’s bedside. “Only high-quality research results can withstand the complex translation process,” says Baum. “No matter how much time pressure we are currently feeling in the coronavirus pandemic, science must never compromise on this point – otherwise, we have no chance of turning research into health.” Professor Theodora Bloom is executive editor of the prestigious British Medical Journal, which is dedicated to publishing clinical research. She scrutinizes submitted results on a daily basis to determine whether they stand up to peer review. Dr. Andreas Alois Reis works at the World Health Organization (WHO), where he is responsible for the ethical side of health programs, which are ultimately based on scientific studies. They will all contribute their views on the pandemic’s long-term impacts, discussing whether health research will and should change, and if so, how.
The panel discussion will take place online on Sunday, October 25, 2020, 2:00 – 3:30 p.m., and can be viewed free of charge:
Meeting ID: 93345592012
This will be followed by a panel discussion, from 4:00 – 5:30 p.m., between BIH Professor Christof von Kalle and his guests on the topic of “Translation in the Times of Covid-19”:
Meeting ID: 946677193030
In a BIH Podcast, Professor Ulrich Dirnagl talks about how research conditions have changed during the coronavirus pandemic (in German only):
Professor Daniel Strech addresses this topic in a video (in German only):