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How Research Informs the COVID-19 Response

Research informs medicine. Without it, we would not have the advances in treatment, human lifespan, and comfort we experience daily. However, research doesn’t just inform medical treatment; it informs public health and public policy, and it helps explain human behaviors. Every type of research requires the rigor of the scientific method (observe, question, hypothesis, methods, collect, analyze, iterate). Protocols are written; scientific value and ethics are assessed; data is collected; analyses are proposed and executed; and time, energy, and passion are expended.

Let’s look at information we are hearing from the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to highlight how research informs our daily lives.

Some Background Information: Virology research on endemic diseases (think the seasonal flu), past events like the 1918 influenza pandemic, as well as hygiene and hospital practice research have informed the medical world’s daily practices, which are then applied to “once-in-a-century” events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many people haven’t heard about coronaviruses before this year, they were actually identified in 1968 and reported in the journal Nature. In addition to COVID-19, there are four other coronaviruses that commonly infect humans. We have also encountered coronaviruses in the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and the MERS outbreak 2012-2015. Both pre-clinical and clinical studies have allowed the genomes of these viruses to be published, treatments determined, and a vaccine developed for SARS. This previous work, in addition to numerous other studies, is informing the world on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vaccination development research normally makes big news because it’s the “superhero” of disease research. The ability to squash a villain before it attacks makes a great storyline. However, the unsung heroes have saved many more lives. Research behind hand washing with soap and using proper personal protective equipment (PPE) in medical settings is necessary but often taken for granted. We’ve seen a lot of advice lately, and it’s research that backs up the advice.

COVID-19 Scenario: Non-pharmaceutical interventions to combat viral spread, such as masks, gowns, and washing hands with soap and water

Research: A systematic review of the literature published in 2008 stated physical barriers were effective in preventing viral spread in numerous settings. The research studies examined in this review include randomized, controlled interventional trials and observational studies. On top of the research each of the individual studies undertook, the systematic review itself utilized analysis techniques to account for biases that published literature inherently has. This type of overarching research provides strong evidence toward policy making, as it demonstrates the body of evidence in support (or not) of health practices and/or recommendations.

COVID-19 Scenario: Social distancing/staying 6 feet apart to “flatten the curve”

Research: In this scenario, we see the impact of mathematical modeling and epidemiology research. Epidemiology is the study of the incidence, spread, and control of disease and other health conditions. In this field, researchers identify “patient zero” and trace contacts to determine how disease spreads and how to mitigate it. Research into the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed millions worldwide shows social containment measures reduced disease spread and, ultimately, spared human lives. During that pandemic, the city of St. Louis implemented social distancing measures early on and did not experience the devastating human loss that Philadelphia did.

However, outside of this specific case study, social distancing receives mixed reviews from a research perspective. There are a few systematic reviews on the topic, and most indicate the present research is flawed and unclear. One review found social distancing in the workplace did “flatten the curve” as well as delay the onset of influenza infection and reduce the number of contacts (i.e., people who came in contact with someone carrying the virus). That translated to lesser virus in the general public when partnered with other non-pharmaceutical interventions. Another study looked at a different virus (SARS) and a different location (entry points) and observed no clear findings. More research is definitely needed to help quantify which procedures offer the most benefit.

COVID-19 Scenario: Panic buying and hoarding of toilet paper and other essentials

Research: Human research is not limited to examining how proposed treatments work on various diseases. There is a wealth of information provided through social-behavioral research describing and understanding why people do what they do – individually, in relationships, or in groups – and provide best practice on how to maximize mental health and personal well-being. Researchers indicate there is reason to be concerned about the public’s focus on hoarding supplies like toilet paper. Psychology and economy researchers have weighed in, proposing several theories including being prepared in a time of chaos (zero risk bias), having a sense of control in a situation where there is little control that can be had, the “mob” mentality with people posting shopping and hoarding on social media, as well as the desire to control a primal association with bodily functions.

These are just a few of the many ways research is informing the global COVID-19 response. There is so much more that we don’t have room to cover here, including ongoing research during the current pandemic that provides governments, health organizations, medical providers, and the public with the most up-to-date information. There is also the massive depth of non-human research currently underway to understand the genetic origins of the virus, how it came into the human pool, and how it is transmitted (or not) through air, surfaces, and liquids.

So thank you to all the researchers out there contributing to the wealth of scientific knowledge guiding our daily medical practice, public health initiatives, and understanding of biological and human nature. We here at Advarra are proud to partner with you in your research initiatives to make our public health efforts #AltogetherBetter.

Advarra is honored to partner with the research community to fight coronavirus (COVID-19). In addition to overseeing the majority of COVID-19 research in the US, Advarra can assist sponsors, CROs, and sites with a variety of remote and virtual consulting capabilities to help prevent COVID-19 related restrictions from halting ongoing research. Let us know how we can help.

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