DOHA—Research institutions in Qatar played an essential role in the fight against Covid-19 and the coronavirus that causes it, but their shift of focus to the pandemic had far-reaching effects on research as a whole.
Many research activities were suspended or postponed. At the same time, the Covid-19 emergency led to more innovation in research and new cross-border collaborations. (See a related article, “Genetics and Artificial Intelligence Drive Qatar University’s Covid-19 Research.”)
“There’s no doubt that other areas have suffered by too much focus on coronavirus,” said Egon Toft, vice president and founding dean of the College of Medicine at Qatar University. “Many researchers have thrown what they had in their hands and have only done coronavirus research. At Qatar University we produced about 100 scientific papers on the coronavirus up to June 2021.” (See a related article, “Health and Economic Crises Threaten Arab Funding for Research.”)
Emergency Response Grants
In response to the pandemic, Texas A&M University at Qatar launched a Covid-19 program encouraging applicants to develop models and algorithms to support the university’s response and the understanding of its effect on people.
“There’s no doubt that other areas have suffered by too much focus on coronavirus.”Egon Toft
Vice president of the College of Medicine at Qatar University
The Qatar National Research Fund established a rapid response call offering researchers grants of up to 100,000 Qatari rials (about $26,000) each for three-month projects related to the coronavirus.
The Research Support Office of the Vice President’s Office for Research and Graduate Studies at Qatar University also organized an emergency response grant dedicated to Covid-19 research.
The grant supported several research tracks with a budget of 150,000 Qatari rials ($39,000) for each track. The tracks covered basic molecular research, clinical research, social behavioral research, epidemiology, infectious diseases, public health, and e-health.
“Various research centers and colleges at Qatar University have mobilized their research efforts to address the pandemic,” said Mohammed Hassan M.A. Al-Salem, the university’s director of research support. “Scientists from Qatar University worked closely with physicians at Hamad Medical Corporation (the government body that manages health care in Qatar) to develop innovative approaches to disease management and to handle the high flow of cases.”
Impact on Research Quality
An analysis by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that, worldwide, more than $5 billion was allocated for coronavirus research by public funding bodies in the first nine months of 2020. This widespread engagement with the virus research risked diverting research efforts indiscriminately away from non-Covid-19 topics, the analysis said.
“Various research centers and colleges at Qatar University have mobilized their research efforts to address the pandemic.”Mohammed Hassan M.A. Al-Salem
Director of research support at Qatar University
The abundance of funding for Covid-19 research and the need for quick results also affected the quality of research.
The OECD analysis said that despite the huge volume of research on the coronavirus, it was still difficult to assess whether the scientific production was worth the public investment.
This finding is in line with another study on the impact of Covid-19 research, which said that some studies of the virus do not meet published clinical trial standards, or were published without peer review.
“There was a tendency to produce research papers of lower quality about coronavirus, since it was easy to publish about it but difficult to publish about other fields,” Toft said. “I felt that the bar has been lowered to pass everything out.”
Toft said that several research papers that made their way into reputable journals were based on assumptions rather than data, which led to mistakes in the early phases of the pandemic like recommending treatments that were later proven ineffective or that had serious side effects.
Limits on Other Research
Clinical research on other diseases is another area that was highly affected by the focus on Covid-19.
In the United States 1,130 cancer clinical trials stopped between March 2020 and May 2021 because of Covid 19, according to the Cancer Research Institute, while 5,446 trials for treating Covid-19 were initiated during the same period.
“The impact on clinical research is huge. Many hospital staff and researchers are engaged in helping people fight the infection. That limits the type of research we can do, because we don’t have the manpower to do it.”Shahrad Taheri
Assistant dean for clinical investigations at Weill Cornell Medicine–Qatar
The same pattern occurred in Qatar.
“The impact on clinical research is huge,” said Shahrad Taheri, assistant dean for clinical investigations and director of the Clinical Research Core at Weill Cornell Medicine–Qatar. “Many hospital staff and researchers are engaged in helping people fight the infection. That limits the type of research we can do, because we don’t have the manpower to do it.”
However, Toft thinks that in the long run, Covid-19 might have a positive impact on clinical research in Qatar, because the pandemic highlighted the importance of this type of research.
“I think this will be a breakthrough for clinical research in the future,” he said. “This is not only for coronavirus, it is similarly important for every field to continuously update your evidence to give the best documented treatment for patients.”
The College of Medicine is currently working to establish a department of clinical research as a joint project with Hamad Medical Corporation, but is still waiting for resources to be released. Toft thinks that the coronavirus pandemic will give the plan the push it needs.
Abdelaziz Bouras, a professor of computer science and manager of the Pre-Award Department at Qatar University’s Office of Research Support, said that the new conditions brought by the pandemic have had a big impact on the way the university works with its researchers and students.
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“In the background of all these discussions, there is this huge change in the definition of the university itself,” he said. “We are brainstorming now to find a more sustainable way to make our research and to transform universities to be more flexible.” (See a related article, “How Medical Schools in Qatar Adapted During the Pandemic.”)