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Science

Coronavirus research already 100 times more than SARS

China and US lead pack while Japan lags behind Italy and UK

A scientist works on research into coronavirus disease antibodies for possible use in a drug at Tsinghua University's Research Center for Public Health in Beijing on March 30.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The coronavirus pandemic has produced a worldwide explosion of research that has outpaced peer reviews, suggesting a new trend in public health science that favors speed over established channels.

In four months, about 10,000 research papers were produced on the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, last year, according to global data compiled by Japan's National Institute of Science and Technology Policy. That compares with just 100 or so papers on SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, as of seven months after that outbreak began in 2002. 

Much of the volume of COVID-19 research has come from China and the U.S., and has bypassed the typically monthslong process of scientific vetting known as peer review, instead going straight to online sites in the form of "preprints."

"The trend of preprint dissemination may be here to stay," regardless of the merits of the actual research, said Miho Funamori, an associate professor at the National Institute of Informatics in Tokyo.

China led in terms of the number of coronavirus-related preprints as of April 21, with 545, followed by the U.S. at 411, according to the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy data. Japan lagged in eighth place with 31, behind the U.K. and Italy. Countries' coronavirus research output shows a correlation with the number of domestic COVID-19 cases. Japan's relatively lighter outbreak has left it with less COVID-19 patient data -- a fact that has also slowed a clinical trial for potential treatment Avigan.

The proliferation of coronavirus research has not been without controversy. The prominent medical journal The Lancet recently retracted a study on the effects of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 patients. The move followed questions about the underlying data and how it was vetted.

Several factors have contributed to faster output of research on COVID-19, which, like SARS, is a respiratory disease caused by a type of coronavirus.

Besides the far greater scale of the current pandemic compared with the SARS outbreak, advances in research sophistication and speed as well as such digital tools as data sharing may have had complementary effects, according to the project team at the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy.

The rise of preprints -- studies that have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal -- has characterized the volume of COVID-19 research. About 4,700 coronavirus-related studies have been posted on bioRxiv and medRxiv, two internet sites that carry preprints.

Some of this unpublished research has garnered worldwide interest. A U.S. study on what allowed the novel coronavirus to jump from animals to humans, co-authored by researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, has been viewed more than 270,000 times. The research probes whether a mutation that affects the protein structure of the virus' surface makes it better able to infect human cells.

Faced with the urgency of the pandemic, some traditional journals have tried to accelerate peer reviews, an effort that has led to an increase in published studies. Artificial intelligence has also been used to sift through reams of research. In one example, Tokyo-based AI analysis company Fronteo is focusing on the search for COVID-19 drug candidates.

Beyond research into the virus itself, the pandemic has led to a broader international exchange of knowledge, such as sharing of ventilator designs. But the breakneck pace of research hitting the internet has raised questions about whether scientific accuracy is being sacrificed for speed.

A preprint manuscript published in January by Indian researchers suggested that the novel coronavirus may have been man-made, pointing to similarities to proteins in HIV. The study sparked controversy and was eventually retracted. The Los Alamos-involved study has also drawn doubts.

"We must avoid outcomes in which flawed research becomes the basis for public policies that hurt people," said Eisuke Enoki, a specialist in Japan on research ethics.

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