Q: How are researchers conducting their studies in COVID-19 times?
COVID-19 has shut down labs. In such a situation, it is risky to invite human participants to labs. What then can be possible solutions to ensure research is conducted effectively and efficiently?
The extent of the impact COVID-19 has had on studies involving human participants depends on the nature of the studies themselves. Research on COVID-19 itself needed to be accelerated because of the global public health emergency, so researchers, research organizations, funders, and policy-makers had to work together to prioritize COVID-19 studies and come up with ways to conduct them safely, effectively, and ethically.
Many non-COVID-19 studies involving human participants are likely to have been delayed for long periods unless they are considered high priority or can be conducted with modified protocols given the risks and constraints posed by the pandemic.
Several authorities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), provide guidelines on conducting research on human participants during emergencies. According to these guidelines, the scientific and social value of a research project involving humans must outweigh the risks involved at the time of the emergency. Furthermore, all standard ethical guidelines should be followed strictly, including acquisition of informed consent and protection of research participants so that they are subjected to minimal risk.
In some cases, research protocols can be modified where possible such that research can be continued or initiated. For example, if a research project can be conducted with remote participation of human subjects instead of face-to-face interactions, researchers can adopt alternative methodologies (e.g., online surveys/questionnaires, telephonic interviews, etc.). In such cases, researchers will need to submit the revised methodologies, including revised consent procedures, for approval by review boards.
Where participants are required to visit laboratories/clinics, researchers may need to demonstrate that the research is worth the risks, that it cannot be conducted without the visits, that all precautions are being taken to minimize risk to participants and the research staff, and that where possible, physical proximity is avoided by adopting alternative means for data gathering.
It is crucial that researchers review all relevant ethical guidelines on conducting human research during emergencies as well as national and local policies that may apply. As a starting point, you may refer to the WHO ethical standards for research during public health emergencies.
For other ways in which researchers/academics have had to adapt their work due to the pandemic, you may find the following articles of interest.