Coronavirus crisis inspiring ‘unprecedented’ global research effort

The search for a coronavirus vaccine is spurring worldwide collaboration, the speed and size of which has never been seen before, say experts

March 25, 2020
Source: Getty

The research response to Covid-19 has been faster and more globalised than during previous epidemics, experts say. Progress has been accelerated by a vast amount of open data being available online, particularly gene sequencing data posted on a website in January by a team led by Fudan University

Two months later, the first human clinical trials for a vaccine against Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, have begun in the US.

Karen Grépin, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), told Times Higher Education that, in her estimation, “there has never been such a rapid global collective effort to fight one disease”.

There were similar efforts in the fights against cancer and HIV/AIDS, but those spanned decades. “It has only been a little more than three months since this virus was identified and already there are a number of vaccine candidates in development for Sars-CoV-2, which is a remarkable system,” she said.

Dozens of projects – mostly collaborations between medical schools, governments and pharmaceutical companies – are developing and testing vaccine candidates. Work is happening at specialised labs from VIDO-InterVac at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan to the department of immunology and microbiology at the University of Copenhagen.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), based in Oslo, has funded teams at the universities of Queensland and Oxford. UQ have said a vaccine could be ready within a year.  Most recently, CEPI partnered with HKU’s State Key Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases to fast-track work.

Many US schools, such as Johns Hopkins University, have halted other research in order to prioritise funding and research on Covid-19 and have openly shared information with other institutions.

A petition posted by academics in February called for journal publishers to make Covid-19 reports free to the public. It resulted in tens of thousands of papers being “unlocked” by Oxford University Press, Taylor & Francis, Wiley, Elsevier and others.  

“Publishers faced the choice between protecting the value of their intellectual property and protecting humanity during this incredibly urgent medical crisis,” the academics wrote in response to the dropping of the paywalls.

Professor Grépin said that “given the urgency of the work being done on Covid-19, there is even more urgency to ensure that the data being generated in the outbreak be put into the public domain to facilitate and encourage more research”. 

“The global research community is incredibly mobilised right now to contribute their time and skills to research of this nature, and making this data more available will lead to [much more] knowledge being generated,” she added. 

The first human clinical trials started on 16 March in Seattle, funded by the US National Institutes of Health

The same day that the US trial began, China authorised its first clinical trial to be led by Chen Wei, a virologist who heads the Institute of Bioengineering at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences.

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Reader's comments (3)

Early publication is fine provided it is peer reviewed. Yellow-page journalism is not going to help
Many thanks, Ms. Lau, and to your team at THE for all of your efforts toward raising the profile and awareness of all of the contributions, collaboration and progress being achieved across the global scientific research community – particularly during these challenging times and always. Pursuant to the commentary surrounding journal publishers, and for the benefit of all stakeholders, I'll respectfully share a link to the announcement that was published today by the National Institute of Health announcing the NLM's efforts to expand access to scientific papers on coronavirus for researchers, care providers, and the public, and for text-mining research. All publishers supporting this initiative, and particularly those cited in this article, should be commended for these important contributions.
With comments like this from publishers why are they not surprised by our low view of their efforts? Tandf have had their coronavirus research for free for weeks but now seem to have thrown together a COVID19 page on their website with loads of links to their ‘resources’. Such crass, simplistic marketing needs to be seen for what it is. Surely if this was purely altruistic you would have just carried on with what you were already doing, making it easy to get to with no paywall direct from a search engine. That's want we need not your requests to be 'commended for your contributions'.