COVID-19 has generated an outpouring of fast-paced, late-breaking new developments. The majority of countries (188) around the world have reported cases of COVID-19.1 As of April 1, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported cases in every U.S. jurisdiction (50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands).2 Research, by nature, is methodical. During a pandemic, however, research methods may need altered.
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Explore This IssueJuly 2020
Given the new urgency to find an answer, a treatment and a resolution to the pandemic, what happens to the millions of unrelated research studies already in process?
Members of the ARP Research Subcommittee, in collaboration with the ARP president and members of the ACR Committee on Research and Early Career Investigator Subcommittee, shared the following observations of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their research. Common themes were loss, delay and change.
Loss of Staff
As students comply with isolation requirements, they are no longer on campus to assist with research studies. Dina Jones, PT, PhD, a professor of orthopedics and physical therapy at West Virginia University, Morgantown, says, “I am now assembling mailings, ordering supplies, calling participants to review their medications, writing newsletters and entering study data into the database on my own.”
Although researchers oversee all phases of their studies, the loss of student support adds time and effort for the investigator. It is also a loss of experience for the student.
Research publications identify the principal investigator, co-investigators, scientists, research coordinators and statisticians, but integral members of any research study also include support staff, both clerical and administrative. Although a well-planned budget includes laboratory or clinical supplies, the support staff ensures supplies are available.
Elizabeth Volkmann, MD, MS, an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Rheumatology, University of California, Los Angeles, acknowledges the impact on her research of the loss of a study coordinator, who was deployed to necessary clinical operations during the pandemic. That loss has an impact on data collection, recruiting and reporting.
Cross training staff across studies becomes salient, especially among new staff.
Research does not occur in a silo. It requires a team. “In my role as biostatistics team leader,” says Rebecca Cleveland, PhD, assistant professor, Thurston Arthritis Research Center, Department of Medicine, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “[I’ve found that] right now, we do not have the daily interactions [that] are important in the exchange of ideas and finding solutions to complex problems. Further, research study data collection has mostly come to a halt, leaving principal investigators with time to refocus attention on getting analyses and papers out the door. Because of this, our group’s need for statistical support has increased greatly.