Coronavirus Research Tracking - 15 May

Publication tsunami and the vaccine pipeline.

This is the first research tracking weekly highlight. In it we’ll be noting trends, important developments, and significant uncertainties in the emerging research being published on coronavirus and COVID-19.

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Exponential growth in COVID-19-related papers.

The pace and volume of research papers on the coronavirus and COVID-19 is enormous. Science magazine noted this week that at least 23,000 research articles on the virus or the disease have been published this year. And that number is expected to double every 20 days. 

Pre-print use widespread

Most of these papers have not yet been officially published – that is passed peer review to check methodologies, results and conclusions for rigour.

Most of the papers are being made available as pre-prints before or while they are sent to journals. Such pre-print processes were already common for physics, chemistry and mathematics, but the journal Nature Biotechnology noted that before the pandemic the medical sciences were reluctant to follow the same path.

Sharing of pre-prints is a way to help spread knowledge more quickly. It is also a way of signalling who’s working on what to establish research interests and precedents.

Expect more public disputes about pre-print papers

Many pre-print papers change, or never get published. This makes it difficult to identify reliable and significant developments. Authors may over-interpret their results, or some of the media may. 

This was highlighted in the last week by a pre-print paper from the prestigious Los Alamos National Lab in the US. It suggested that the coronavirus may be mutating into a more easily transmissible strain, and this was picked up by a range of media outlets. Scientific criticism of aspects of the paper and media reporting on it was quick. This makes public what usually goes on behind laboratory and editorial doors. 

More such incidents will occur over the coming months.

Emerging tools and resources to help search the research

A range of tools are becoming available to help researchers, and others, identify relevant or significant results.

A rapidly growing vaccine pipeline

At least 10 potential vaccine candidates are currently in clinical trials. Mostly in Phase 1 or 2. Over a hundred more are being considered.

Potential vaccines can fail at any stage of testing. So it isn’t clear which, if any, candidates will pass all three clinical trial stages, and whether or when a vaccine will be approved. Leading public health scientists and administrators are urging that vaccine production and distribution challenges need to begin being addressed now so that when a vaccine is found it can be deployed quickly.

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