COVID-19: Impact on Biomedical Research

There has been a lot of discussion these days about the COVID-19 pandemic and its short- and long-term effects. And with good reason! The impact of the pandemic has hit us all in so many ways – physical and mental health, work and family responsibilities, economic challenges, educational timelines, to name just a few. But there is relatively little in the lay or biomedical literatures about the likely long-term effects of the pandemic on biomedical research and those who do it.

People and families affected by neurological disorders depend critically on neuroscience and neurology research for new answers and solutions to the disorders that challenge them. What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on this research and its workforce, and which of these effects are likely to outlast the pandemic itself?

AAN President Orly Avitzur, M.D. moderates a panel featuring (from left to right): Nina Schor, M.D., Ph.D., Merit Cudkowicz, M.D., and Brenda Branwell, M.D.

At a recent meeting of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), three prominent research-intensive neurologists were asked by AAN President, Dr. Orly Avitzur, to respond to these questions with regard to basic (discussed by me) and clinical (discussed by Dr. Merit Cudkowicz) research and the relevant workforce (discussed by Dr. Brenda Banwell). The most challenging pandemic-related issues seemed to fall into five categories:

  1. People were pulled out of laboratories because of COVID-19 illness, exposure, or asymptomatic test-positivity. They were challenged to appear for work or be productive from home because of additional family responsibilities. Appointments for research study participants to give blood or other body fluids for research were cancelled for fear of fostering spread of infection.
  2. Animals were in short supply from commercial breeders and caretakers were onsite to perform routine care procedures but advised to limit as much as possible experimental procedures to keep the animals and themselves free of infection.
  3. Supplies and equipment that are essential to research were often hard to come by because of supply chain issues. And the facilities workforce, integral to keeping the lights on and buildings in working order, was also hit hard by the pandemic, leading to delays in lab renovations and equipment installation.
  4. Space was a challenge because many research institutions limited the density of people working per unit space of the physical workplace. Indeed, at the beginning of the pandemic, many laboratories closed their doors altogether.
  5. Perhaps worst of all, time became a real problem for many. Generating data to meet deadlines to renew grant funding, finishing studies required for completion of a Ph.D. degree, and, particularly for new investigators just launching their careers, accruing enough data to submit a grant application within the window of eligibility between obtaining a degree and becoming fully independent as a scientist, were and still are real challenges. In addition, some were offered faculty positions only to have the offers rescinded because of institutional hiring freezes during the pandemic.

We in biomedical research, like everyone in every arena, are faced with many challenges because of the pandemic. And many of these challenges preferentially affect those just coming into the biomedical workforce pipeline, impacting our vitality, diversity, creativity, and, most of all, our future. So what are we doing to limit the negative impact of the pandemic on biomedical research?

At the individual level, senior scientists are supervising remotely as much as possible so that junior scientists can come in to laboratories with “people density” restrictions to do their hands-on work. Granting agencies of all kinds are extending eligibility windows and relaxing deadlines to allow more time for submission of career-critical grant applications.

Institutions and granting agencies are allowing more time and funding for extending the post-doctoral (pre-faculty) period until hiring freezes are ended. NIH has provided $2,500 per year of training grants to be used for child- or elder-care during the training period. Many funding agencies have provided supplemental funds for replacing supplies, animals, and equipment that are now more expensive and harder to get than would otherwise be the case. Finally, many labs have pivoted to work on COVID-19 and supplementary funding for studies related to COVID-19 and its long-term effects is available through many funding agencies, including NIH.

As has been said many times before, we will get through this. Things will be different. Time may not be completely recouped. But with any luck (and a lot of hard work), we will go from strength to strength!