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Covid-19 research volume ‘dwarfs’ that of other pandemics

Analysis finds spike of 68,000 annual Covid papers, compared with about 1,300 for H1N1 flu

The volume of research on Covid-19 has outstripped that of other 21st century viral disease outbreaks “by orders of magnitude”, according to a report by the Institute for Scientific Information, published in partnership with Research Professional News*.

An ISI analysis released on 4 May of about 190,000 scholarly publications from 2000-22 maps the evolution of research across five pandemics.

Alongside Covid-19, the analysis looks at two outbreaks caused by two more coronaviruses—Sars, which emerged in China in 2003, and Mers, which arose in Saudi Arabia in 2012. It compares these with the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009-10 and the Zika virus pandemic of 2015-16.

“Covid-19 research has been unprecedented, dwarfing other (corona)virus research by orders of magnitude, illustrating the pandemic’s truly global effects,” says the report, which was written by Ross Potter, lead data scientist at the ISI.

In 2020, nearly 28,000 papers were published on Covid-19, rising to nearly 68,000 in both 2021 and 2022.

Among the pandemics considered, H1N1 caused the second-highest spike in research publications, peaking at about 1,300 papers in 2011.

While neither Sars nor Mers led to anything like such large numbers, the onset of Covid-19 caused a spike in Sars research, taking the total number of papers to more than 5,000 in 2021. Covid-19 has also led to a surge in the filing of patents for coronavirus vaccines and treatments since 2019.

Geography matters

In terms of where research on the pandemics analysed took place, the United States was the most productive country for each virus, with China also producing a significant share of papers, according to the analysis.

The geography of disease outbreaks is further reflected in where research took place. Brazil accounted for almost a quarter of the global share of research on Zika, demonstrating the impact of the virus on the Americas, while China produced a particularly large share of the research on Sars.

The analysis finds that Covid-19’s global reach led to a lower share of research output for the US and China compared with other viruses. The UK accounted for about 9.5 per cent of Covid-19 research, Italy 7.5 per cent, India 6 per cent and Turkey 4 per cent.

There has also been a relative shift in clinical trials featuring experimental coronavirus vaccines and antivirals from North America and Europe to the Asia Pacific region, according to the report.

A version of this article appeared in Research Europe

*Research Professional News is an editorially independent part of Clarivate. The Institute for Scientific Information is the research arm of Clarivate. You can download a copy of the ISI report here.