Research Short Cuts For COVID-19 May Change Science Forever

In the race to to find a cure, scientists are rushing to release their study results. There are dangers in skipping the standard peer-review procedures, but they may be outweighed by the benefits.

A scientist conducting coronavirus research in Brunswick, Germany
Leyre Flamarique

BARCELONA — Across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has mobilized researchers and specialists in an array of fields in a collective bid to end the current state of emergency. Scientific research has pulled out all the stops to publish studies at a frantic rate, with one website, the Allen Institute of AI's Semantic Scholar, compiling more than 130,000 papers on the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Many were published almost immediately upon completion, and made publicly accessible before undergoing peer revision. This means the results were available months before they would have under standard publication procedures. The aim is to accelerate the search for solutions to the global malady.

Extraordinary circumstances, as they say, require extraordinary measures. But as a result, websites are brimming with content that's being read as if these outlets were rigorous scientific journals, and with provisional conclusions being taken as definitive.

The positive side of this is "results in real time," says Patrick Aloy, a senior researcher at the Barcelona-based Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB). The less positive side, he said, "is that it doesn't give us time to give the validation science deserves. We're practically spitting out data."

The consequences were not late in coming. The bioRxiv, an online archive of studies, decided in March to no longer upload computer studies on potential treatments for the coronavirus. The web was receiving too many speculative articles done with this method, some of which, as the website's co-founder Richard Sever told the journal Nature, made somewhat "crazy" affirmations and predictions about COVID-19.

Extraordinary circumstances, as they say, require extraordinary measures.

This "preprint server for biology" argues that in a pandemic, when people are paying so much attention to such websites, there is added concern about the possible consequences of this methodology. It's akin to self-medication. The website does stress that many of the new studies have not been verified, and thus should not be considered conclusive.

This mass of information inevitably requires some sifting. There's so much data, Aloy explains, "that it's difficult to use it all, and you focus on the groups you trust." His laboratory has joined forces with Amazon to design a tool for filtering information on molecules of possible utility in curing the COVID-19 illness.

Isabel Sola, a researcher at the CSIC's National Biotechnology Center in Madrid, has been working since February on a vaccine based on a modification of the coronavirus genome. She believes we need to keep looking at the incoming information with a critical eye. "Haste is not a good counselor," she says. "We're talking about a biological problem and this takes some time."

A researcher holds a COVID-19 vaccine candidate in Saraburi, Thailand — Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Sola has been studying coronaviruses for years and is a world leader in the field. The pandemic has freed up "a whole lot of money and a great many research groups have seen an opportunity," she says. The Spanish government has itself approved a 30-million-euro budget to research the virus, 4.5 million of which have gone to CSIC, the research center where she works.

Some of these groups are starting from scratch and "clearly lack experience," she says. The search for a virus is no easy task, she says. "You need years to find a vaccine, and each virus has its own personality and problems." Sola's group is familiar with the difficulties of finding a vaccine for the coronavirus group and the approaches to be discarded beforehand. She stresses, however, that not every new finding is bad.

The flood of new, freely published material may become a departure point for future scientific output.

Across the Atlantic, José Manuel Ordovás, an immunologist at the Harvard Medical School, has adapted his laboratory at the Boston Children's Hospital to research the coronavirus. His team found that interferons — a specific group of proteins the immune system produces to fight off infections — can help the virus penetrate cells.

This, he says, means that "in recent months we haven't focused on what we were studying before." Nor could they have, as the Boston hospital did not allow experiments on the virus until early June. The laboratory is slowly resuming work after a several-month pause.

The negative aspects of the information rush aside, it's a situation that has also led teams to follow each other's results. The flood of new, freely published material may become a departure point for future scientific output. "This system may prevail," Sola says. "It was already possible to present preprints, but it wasn't so widely visible or valued so much."

Like an overflowing river that eventually crests and drops back to normal levels, the Madrid-based researcher believes we shall recover the balance between the two sources: the traditional journals and the more free-flowing online compendia.

Ordovás believes the balance should be between skepticism and transparency. He says this proliferation could become a new way of doing research that is neither totally secretive with its results, nor practically transparent and overly interested in emitting findings at any cost. It would, he argues, be a step toward a "slightly more democratic" state of communicating data and ideas.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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