The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting science and research

The pandemic caused by the coronavirus is having a surprisingly diverse impact on science and research.

Published 1.10.2020
Writer: Pentti Huovinen / Sakari Alhopuron säätiö

Remote working, as a result of the physical shutdown of the universities and institutes of higher education, has given many researchers the opportunity to focus on writing and reading. Technically speaking, it is easy to carry out research anywhere, since databases can be used in the same way, regardless of whether the work is being done on a campus or at home.

When the universities shut their doors, however, it complicates research work. This has certainly been the case for experimental studies for medical and life science research. When facilities intended to be used for laboratory work and research are closed or any work in them requires a permit, the research cannot advance as intended. The implementation of clinical patient studies has also ceased or slowed down. It remains to be seen how these will impact research in the long term.

When teaching is carried out as remote learning, it also becomes more difficult to recruit students, i.e., future researchers. The process of nurturing a new generation of researchers will be hindered for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finnish research is highly international. Even though research can be carried out through remote co-operation with foreign researchers, the mobility of researchers has almost completely stopped. This can’t help but have a gradual impact on the level of the research.

Spontaneous meetings between researches have also largely ceased. People are not gathering in break rooms or dining together in the same way as they did earlier. Encounters between researchers are crucial to the process of creating something new. It has been said that a significant portion of new research initiatives or innovations won't be realised if researchers continue to lack opportunities to freely interact with one another.

I surely wouldn’t be a professor if I hadn’t heard, in passing while in a coffee room at the end of the 1980s, about the cases of macrolide antibiotic-resistant group A Streptococcus that had spread in the areas surrounding Turku. I remember having the revelation that something like this had only happened anywhere in the world once before; in Japan in the 1960s. The information my colleagues shared with me, over cups of coffee, changed the course of my research career.

We also shouldn’t underestimate the significance of crises in terms of generating innovations. Without World War II, we likely wouldn’t have gotten penicillin into use as rapidly as we did. The COVID-19 pandemic has already produced an enormous amount of new research data on the pathogenic mechanisms of viruses and accelerated the development of medicines and vaccines in an unprecedented way. The pandemic has also changed the ways in which society prevents infectious diseases. Proper coughing and hand hygiene have been ingrained in everyone’s minds.

As a doctor specialising in infection diagnostics, I have followed the development of rapid diagnostic tests with a sense of admiration. Presently, we are able to diagnose a COVID-19 infection in a few minutes using a test that only costs about five dollars. And even faster tests are being developed.

Once the pandemic has passed, we will perhaps have access to other tests, which can be used during a visit with your doctor, to tell us quickly what type of microbe is causing an infectious disease. There would no longer be the need to wait several days for laboratory results. Rapid diagnostics has a great significance in terms of the targeted use of antibiotics. It will enable us to cut down on the overall use of antibiotics and prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, otherwise known as a ‘silent pandemic’. At the same time, we are able to safeguard the efficacy of antibiotics for future generations as well.

Pentti Huovinen, Professor
Vice Chairman of the Board
Sakari Alhopuro Foundation