As scientists around the world race to develop vaccines for COVID-19, it has become clear that the pandemic has changed the pace of collaboration between researchers in various countries. An article from The New York Times earlier this year detailed the huge proliferation of international research as researchers from all parts of the world came together to share data and build on each other’s results.

But the story looks very different for researchers who aren’t studying COVID-19. For them, pandemic restrictions have slowed — and in some cases halted — research projects that had been months in the making. Disrupted supply lines for experimental equipment, border restrictions, and limited access to laboratories have all slowed the pace of science in 2020.

The Varsity spoke to two scientists at U of T whose collaborative projects have been impacted by COVID-19: Nicole Gervais, a neuroscientist and postdoctoral researcher studying aging and memory; and Shelley Lumba, a professor in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology studying parasitic plant species.

How COVID-19 has expanded international research

International collaboration has long been one of the hallmarks of scientific research. Large projects often require huge teams. For example, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory collaboration, which was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2017 for the first detection of gravitational waves, had over 1,300 members last year, representing every inhabited continent beside Africa.

And the number of collaborations is growing. A 2017 study looking at over 10 million peer-reviewed papers found that the number of international collaborations tripled between 2000 and 2015.

This year, the global emphasis on COVID-19 research has led to a huge proliferation in biomedical research. One of the main ways this trend can be observed is the rise in pre-prints — non-peer-reviewed, publicly accessible research papers —  about COVID-19. 

The biomedical pre-print repositories bioRxiv and medRxiv currently host over 11,000 papers on various aspects of COVID-19. For context, there have only been 7,113 papers related to HIV and AIDS published to the server in the past decade.

Much of this research has been international as researchers operate with an urgency that comes with a crisis. Paul Duprex, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh, reported to The New York Times that he was able to share his lab’s preliminary vaccine testing data with scientists around the world within two hours of discovery — a time frame weeks shorter than the traditional peer review process allows.

Cancelled plans

But what about researchers who aren’t studying COVID-19? For them, pandemic restrictions have made day-to-day operations difficult or even impossible.

Lumba had planned two research trips for this summer: one to France, as part of a $8,000–$15,000 research grant from the French embassy in Canada, and another to the United Kingdom to work with a regular collaborator.

Both trips were cancelled this year due to international travel restrictions. Even when restrictions were lifted and travel was made possible, it wasn’t a decision Lumba was willing to make.

“I don’t think we were restricted per se, but obviously, there’s always the quarantine [imposed by international travel] — and really, who wants to be travelling right now?” she said. “I don’t want to have to risk my life, or [the lives of] my high-risk family.”

At the same time, her collaborators were under their own restrictions that limited the time they could spend in their labs. According to Lumba, her collaborators may have prioritized their individual experiments over the collaborative research because of these limitations.

“I’m hoping that they’ll get some time to do [some of the experiments] themselves,” Lumba added. “But it will move incredibly slowly now.”

Moving online

Gervais was able to pivot a little more easily. Ordinarily, her team would have women come into their lab in Sidney Smith Hall to provide data for ongoing research into the impacts of the estrogen hormone on cognition.

When provincial restrictions made in-person data collection impossible, her team shifted to an online questionnaire. Meanwhile, the team’s collaborators in Montréal and Sweden were able to continue in-person testing at some point.

“So they’ve been going as per usual, but we’ve stopped, and we haven’t resumed,” Gervais said.

Both research teams have also had difficulty shipping equipment and data samples abroad. Lumba was expecting a shipment of a chemical compound made by a collaborator in Australia but ran into difficulties because local restrictions limited the volume that could be manufactured quickly.

Lumba also added that shipping items from the US is taking longer than usual. “There’s definitely been issues with ordering items across the border,” she said.

Gervais said that her lab usually sends biological samples such as urine — which can be used to analyze hormone levels — and saliva to Pennsylvania State University in the US. Gervais’ lab was unable to ship its samples this year, so it used St. Michael’s Hospital as a storage facility for Toronto samples.

Even then, Gervais said she was not allowed to go and process the stored samples. Fortunately, the lab’s Swedish collaborators were to pick up the slack since they had fewer restrictions.

Gervais said that this slowdown has been particularly felt by graduate students in the lab whose thesis projects have been halted. “This can delay their graduation, which can also have major impacts on their career later.”

The website of the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) mentioned that graduate students whose progress was impacted by COVID-19 can be eligible for additional funding, including tuition exemptions and short-term schemes listed in the Funding Opportunity Directory. These may include an SGS Emergency Loan, usually valued between $1,000–$1,500, or an SGS Emergency Grant for those who have exhausted all other options.

As the year draws to a close, it seems likely that a vaccine will soon be approved by the Canadian government. It is not clear what the distribution timeline will be, but if it is relatively speedy, 2021 could be a more lively year for international science.

Lumba has already managed to extend her grant from the French embassy for another year in hopes that she can safely travel to France next year.

Hopefully she is one of the many researchers who can resume their work. Otherwise, labs may have to stay shut for some time longer, leaving projects and graduations in limbo.

With files from Aanya Bahl