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Pandemic shrinks coronavirus collaborations

Covid-19 has focused attention on neglected virus group but cut out developing world researchers

Despite a global surge of interest in coronaviruses following the discovery of Covid-19 in China, collaborative networks studying these pathogens appear to have shrunk during the pandemic—with a concerning drop in the participation of developing nations.

Caroline Wagner, a researcher at Ohio State University in the US, and her colleagues combed through data on more than 10,000 published articles and pre-prints on coronaviruses, including Covid-19 and the previously known Sars and Mers viruses.

Those articles produced in the early months of Covid-19 came from smaller teams working in fewer countries than those that came before, Wagner—the Milton and Roslyn Wolf chair in international affairs at Ohio State University—told Research Professional News. The same trend did not hold when pre-prints were included.

“It makes sense,” she said. “When you’re rushing to get something out you need to work with people you already know because it’s harder to communicate at a distance—you don’t know a person’s voice inflections, their facial features.”

Countries hit hard early by the pandemic, such as the China, Italy and the US, have emerged as leaders in Covid-19 research. China’s share of global coronavirus publications grew from 22 per cent before the outbreak to 39 per cent after.

Despite smaller collaborations globally and increasing tensions between their nations, researchers in the US and China strengthened their relationships. Before the outbreak, collaborations between the nations’ researchers produced 3.6 per cent of coronavirus papers, but has risen to 4.9 per cent, the team reports in a 21 July paper in PLOS One.

Wagner also highlighted a “very concerning” trend of less participation in the field by developing countries.

These were already “relatively absent” in early research on the topic, producing just 15 per cent of articles. This dropped to 11 per cent after Covid-19 appeared. 

“If this is the way science needs to operate now, in smaller teams, collaborations that trust one another, that’s all perfectly fine,” said Wagner. “The challenge is to ensure broader, more equitable dissemination of knowledge, so that’s where I see a call to action.”  

Policymakers must work to ensure such countries have access to coronavirus research, she said. This could happen by supporting the open sharing of papers and data, and ensuring that young researchers are given the time and resources to get up to speed quickly on new research in the field.