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Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented mobilisation of scholarly efforts to fight a global health crisis

15 June 2020
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated a huge scholarly output across academia. However, Dr Milad Haghani believes that there is still more to be done in the area of safety research, especially where it can assist policy makers.

During the current century, each major corona virus outbreak has triggered a quick surge of academic publications on this topic. The spike in research publications following the Covid-19 outbreak, however, has been like no other. The global crisis resulted from Covid-19 has mobilised scientific efforts in an unprecedented way. With the crisis affecting all aspects of life, research on Covid-19 seems to have become a focal point of interest across nearly all academic disciplines. However, there are still relevant domains where scholarly outputs on Covid-19 are urgently needed to inform policymaking but underrepresented, though they may be underway.

The term coronavirus may have become the part and parcel of life across the globe since the beginning of 2020. While for many of us, who are not medical experts or virologists, the term might have been a stranger prior to 2020, in the medical field research on the family of coronaviruses has been around for many years. Academic research on this topic dates back to nearly 50 years ago when the first published study appeared in Nature (Almeida et al. 1968). Since then, the world has experienced a few major outbreaks of Corona viruses, with the SARS (Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002[1] and the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2012[2] being the most prominent outbreaks of this family of viruses, until Covid-19 came along in 2019[3].

Since 1968, more than 23,000 published studies related to Corona viruses have emerged and been indexed by major academic databases. A closer look at these records (See Figure 1(a)) shows that the scientific research attention to this topic has not been so steady. Rather, each major outbreak of the corona viruses has immediately promoted a quick surge in the number of studies. This has been the case with the SARS outbreak which triggered the first major increase in the number of studies on corona viruses, then ten years later with the MERS outbreak and most notably and recently with the Covid-19 outbreak. The record also shows that each of these spikes in scholarly outputs have lasted for about 2-3 years and has been subsequently followed by a gradual decline in the amount of academic attention to this topic reflecting in the number of published studies.

The spike of scholarly efforts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, however, has been like no other. As of May 13, 2020; i.e. only 134 days since the official reporting of the first case, more than 7,700 published studies related to this topic have been indexed by Scopus, while the number is increasing noticeably each day. This has indeed been unprecedented in the history of research on Corona viruses and, perhaps arguably, in the general field of viral diseases. Authors from 130 countries have contributed their knowledge, ideas and research outcomes on this topic within this short period of time. A closer inspection into the bibliometric details of these studies reveals that, while British Medical Journal, Journal of Medical Virology and Lancet have been the most prominent outlets for studies on Covid-19, research on Covid-19 has now gone far beyond the medial field. With the pandemic affecting all aspects of life at a global scale, researchers across the board have contributed their insight and expertise and the scholarly efforts have now reached academic journals in Social Sciences, Psychology, Veterinary, Environmental Sciences, Engineering, Mathematics, Economics, Chemistry, Economics and Business, only to mention the disciplines with at least 50 publications in this domain so far (See Figure 1(C), or Haghani et al. (2020) for further details).

An analysis of the keywords that have appeared in the title and abstract of these studies also reveal interesting patterns. Based on such key term analyses, three major clusters of studies (See Figure 1(b)) are identifiable: (i) a cluster of studies with a main focus on signs and symptoms of the disease (the green cluster), (ii) a cluster of studies with a main focus on treatments, drugs and vaccines (the blue cluster), and (iii) a cluster of studies pertinent to public health emergency management and policy making. The term Safety is a prominent term that appears to have been cited frequently in studies on Covid-19. A recent scoping review by Haghani et al. (2020) has shown that at least ten major aspects of safety research has attracted the attention of researchers in relation to the Covid-19 crisis. Still, with the crisis affecting almost all aspects of human life, there appear to be areas where more research particularly in the domain of safety could help policy makers. Observations of consumer panic shopping at early stages of the outbreak, for instance, brought the importance of the safety and robustness of supply chains back to the attentions. Also, with many countries initiating transitions to normal socio-economic activities, the importance of crowd control, or public transport management (De Vos 2020) seem to be more prominent than ever, while unprecedented challenges require swift mobilisation of research efforts in those areas. An invigoration of Covid-19 research in these underrepresented areas would be essential and instrumental to provide evidence-based solutions and policy recommendations during various phases of recovery, in addition to making us better prepared for future health crises.

 

[1] The first case reported on November 16, 2002 in the Guangdong province in southern China
[2] The first case reported on June 13, 2012 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
[3] The first case reported on December 31, 2019 in Wuhan, China