The development of a coronavirus vaccine with breathtaking speed was a historic achievement for scientific research. Amid the chaos of social distancing, lockdowns, and home office, not just one, but several viable vaccines were brought to market. Jabs around the world are bringing hope and the promise of returning to a normal social life.
But this laser focus on the coronavirus has also come with costs, and with risks, including to the scientific community that made it a reality.
Cutting Blue Skies
Not since World War II has scientific research been so disrupted. According to Research Gate, a European social networking site for scientists, around 90% of researchers were working from home in April 2020, more than half of which said that their work had been “very” of “extremely” affected by COVID-19.
“At the start of the pandemic it was not as big of a problem. Scientists could spend more time writing up grants and publications that they don’t normally have the time to prioritize,” says Claudia Lingner, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Society that runs its 14 institutes, 4 clusters and 3 affiliated institutes in medicine, life sciences and the humanities in Vienna. “But now that it has gone on for some time, we are starting to see a strain. With limited access to the lab, it is not clear when the planned work can realistically get done or how it will be financed.”
Young scientists and group leaders are in an especially tight spot, working with limited resources, often on short-term contracts.
“Everyone lost experiments, especially in the first lockdown when no one knew what was going to happen. I easily lost half a year of work,” says Zsuzsanna Mérai, postdoctoral researcher at the Gregor Mendel Institute in Vienna, studying epigenetic changes in plants.
Trying to restart experiments has been additionally frustrating, with even basic consumables like pipette tips and gloves on backorder for months.
“It’s been an immense logistical undertaking. If I was in the lab, I had to plan out where I would be every 15 minutes of the day in advance. You get organized but your creativity suffers,” says Olivia Majer, group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin studying autoimmune diseases.
Even prior to the pandemic, funding agencies were starting to veer away from risky, abstract research. The longer coronavirus research remains the focus ofgovernment spending, the more scientists will need a coronavirus connection to maintain their jobs. Blue skies research runs a real risk of losing out, squeezing the“bench to bedside” (research to patient care) pipeline for decades to come.
“We shouldn’t forget how lucky we are that there were labs working on coronavirus before the pandemic hit, when no one was looking. This was their time to shine,” says Dr. Majer. “We need to continue to work broadly, if we want to be prepared for whatever comes.”
Increasing the Gender Gap
There is a well-documented and persistent gender gap in science. This past year was the first time two women, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, ever shared a Nobel Prize for their discovery of genetic scissors (also known as CRISPR/Cas9). Of the 603 Nobel Prizes that have been awarded, only 53 have gone to women – and two of those went to Marie Curie.
Although scientists across the board suffered as a result of the switch to home office, the burden was not shared equally. Researchers (undoubtably in home office themselves) found that female scientists without children have had a 5% larger decline in productivity compared to their male counterparts during 2020. For women with at least one child under 5 years old, the difference was almost 20%.
“For me, working from home was impossible. My son was 2 when the first lockdown hit, and my husband was working. We just pushed through till day care opened,” says Dr. Mérai.
Those at the Vienna BioCenter, where both the IMP and GMI are located, were better off. The BioCenter quickly offered regular free COVID-19 testing foremployees and reopened the campus kindergarten shortly after the first lockdown. This made it possible for scientists, including mothers, to go back to the lab. Still, work has been disrupted.
“The first lockdown was honestly a bit of break.
Day care was closed but the lab as well, so you couldn’t work. But now that it has gone on for some time, and school is closed again, I am back to working in shifts with my husband. It is just mentally tiring,” says Renping Qiao-Coudevylle, mother of two and postdoctoral researcher at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology studying the mechanics of cell division.
And that’s a rare positive example.
“It’s a bubble. I feel safe on campus and safe sending my younger kid to day care because of the regular testing, but if you go outside of the bubble, to another institute, it gets more complicated,” says Dr. Qiao-Coudevylle.
When the COVID-19 smoke clears, academic positions will still need to be appointed. Female scientists and mothers will be faced with an achievement gap that institution leaders and funders will need to address to ensure that women are not driven out of science.
The Next Generation of Medicine
Every new medicine and treatment starts with volunteers participating in clinical trials. On average, it takes about a decade for anything that you can be prescribed to be developed. Clinical trials take up the bulk of development time, often six to seven years, to ensure that what was seen in the lab can be safely and effectively reproduced in humans.
“Overnight, study patients could not come to the hospital or were afraid to come. Even if a trial was allowed to continue, it became immensely difficult to organize routine tasks like distributing patient medication or visiting the study site,” says Michael Hohlagschwandtner, general manager of Clinical Trials Management GmbH, a Vienna-based CRO currently supporting the conduct of around 50 clinical trials.
Once the first lockdown arrived, clinical study locations were forced to prioritize life-threatening trials, and everything that could be put on hold, was. According to ClinicalTrials.gov, the largest databases for publicly registering clinical studies, over 1,000 clinical trials worldwide have stopped as a direct result of the pandemic – everything from developmental drugs for autism, to breast cancer treatments and stroke interventions.
A thousand trials may not seem like much, but it is important to keep in mind that the real number is likely much higher. Many trials are still not registered in public databases and the majority of registered trials still file late. The New England Journal of Medicine estimates that 58% of trials are submitted to ClinicalTrials.gov a year or later after the study started. It is not unreasonable to assume that the first thousand stopped is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Around 20% of our trials are on hold or are ones we cannot access remotely. These will more or less need to start from scratch if they want to continue,” said Hohlagschwandtner.
This could lead to years of delay for the arrival of new drugs and treatments across the branches of medicine.
Challenges Bring Opportunity
Major global events inevitably leave imprints on scientific research. Through the struggles of the pandemic, many positive things happened in addition to the realization of the vaccines. Scientists notably became much more open to sharing their results without a lengthy (and quite frankly opaque) publication process, which could help fast-track new fields of research. There has also been an engagement from the general public on an unprecedented scale.
“It’s a challenge now, but you can’t stop the desire to do basic research. Scientists have a drive to discover, to close gaps in their own knowledge,” says Claudia Lingner. “I’m not worried that basic research will take a step back just yet.