The end of 2019 marked the beginning of a constant state of fear and uncertainty in the society. By early 2020, the world was trying to understand a new disease, COVID-19, and its symptoms. As the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the first preventive step advised by administrations was maintain social distancing.
Then came lockdowns. Education and research institutions were closed, initially for a limited period of time. But given the uncertainty and fear, schools and colleges have been conducting classes and exams online for over a year.
Although it does help maintain the cycle of academic sessions, online teaching is not a satisfactory solution. My own students, for instance, have missed out on lab experience for over a year, an essential part of teaching and learning—this is particularly important in science disciplines. Reading has to be supplemented with ‘practical knowledge’—conducting experiments in labs— which has not happened for students in a year.
Research Projects Take a Hit
Similarly, activities in most research institutions have ceased because of restrictions on visiting labs due to the fear of community transmission. I strongly support these measures taken by the authorities to handle the current situation, but the pandemic has led to stagnancy in ongoing research projects, especially in Indian university systems, because of complete restriction on joining labs.
The quantum of work has been abridged tremendously and completion of projects on time will not be possible. Consequently, overall research is hampered which, in turn, affects the pace of science, globally. Many research projects are languishing due to unavailability of human resources and lack of access to laboratory setups.
Due to the prevalent fear, many researchers are reluctant to resume their work in laboratories. Experimental research, unlike theoretical research, needs proper laboratory setup, which is not possible at home.
There have been monetary losses too. Huge amounts of rare chemicals, kits, antibodies etc., usually procured in advance in most research laboratories, have expired. Animal cell lines and plant tissue cultures, including some rare ones, were damaged. It is a huge loss for a scientist who has been maintaining them for a long time.
For my own research lab, for instance, I had purchased various rare chemicals, reagents etc. worth Rs 8 lakh, arranged through various grants, to run experiments in early 2020. But all that stuff remained unused—some of it is past the expiry date now—due to intermittent lockdowns for an entire year.
Attaining proposed objectives within a given timeline is crucial in research projects. Not being able to do so is a great loss for global science. The ultimate beneficiary of progress in science, after all, is the people.
A Shift in Focus of Research
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up another serious challenge. The focus of research has shifted towards COVID-19. Since its emergence early last year, nearly 1.5 lakh research articles have been published on COVID-19; these are the ones on record. Compare this to not even 10,000 research articles published on NDM-1, the drug-resistant superbug and its variants, first reported in 2009.
With so many researchers working on one problem, other problems could remain unaddressed. Funding would also tilt more towards therapeutic and diagnostic research in COVID-19.
Further, several established researchers, who have never been associated with virology, have now started looking at this branch of science for public good. This not only affects the focus of their own research, but also disturbs how biological research progresses, globally. I wonder if it will have good consequences; rather, it will end up causing duplication and repetition of science. Instead, established virologists may be given the task of solving COVID-19 related issues.
Even under the larger COVID-19 research umbrella, each area of research should be given priority, if we have to fight this pandemic together. I would also appeal to authorities to allow resumption of research activities in labs, with all guidelines and COVID protocols in place.