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Health research hit hard by Covid-19, study finds

Female doctor taking coronavirus sample from man. Frontline workers are in protective workwear. They are at hospital during epidemic.

Most non-coronavirus medical research in New Zealand has been affected, say Otago researchers

Health research in New Zealand has been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, a study from the University of Otago has found.

The university’s specialist medical research programme in Christchurch was required to cease all non-coronavirus-related work in early 2020 and its researchers told the study that “95 per cent of research projects have been affected”. Funding continued to be used up by salaries while the work was paused, and researchers are now concerned about the lack of future support for their pandemic-affected projects.

“Researchers and funded projects that cannot be extended will likely end without having fully completed research milestones, thereby limiting the delivery and impact of health research outcomes,” the study warns.

The paper was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand on 13 January. The lead researcher was Lisa Stamp from the department of medicine at the University of Otago, working alongside researchers from several other departments. The study examined the effects on more than 500 staff and 1,000 students at the specialist medical campus, which is part of the Otago Medical School. The campus received about NZ$26 million in research funding in 2019.

When the pandemic hit, labs closed down and universities were not eligible for government wage subsidies.

At alert Level 4—the highest to which New Zealand has gone during the pandemic—all research apart from that into Covid-19 issues was suspended. At Level 3, the majority of the work was still on hold. This had the effect of “compromising data collection and in some cases halting experiments, some irretrievably, many that had taken months to establish or used costly reagents”, the study says.

Only a “minority” of funding sources have committed to providing extra funds beyond extensions already given.

About a quarter of PhD students under supervision applied to defer their studies, causing blowouts in research deadlines. Many postgraduate and international students also needed personal and financial support from the university. They reported problems with their lab work, especially where live cultures were being used.

One student told the Otago researchers: “The biggest challenge I have faced with the Covid-19 lockdown is the delay or termination of experiments. Before lockdown I was in the middle of a series of experiments that had to be shut down and once out of lockdown the piece of equipment I needed to use was no longer available to me, so these experiments have been terminated…This has caused me to lose a whole aim and chapter from my thesis and I am currently having to come up with a new aim that will fit in my thesis using the current data I have so there is enough for a good-quality PhD-level thesis.”

The authors say that “a more robust career structure with adequate funding, particularly for early and mid-career researchers, is required to ensure that New Zealand has a stable research workforce to address the next health crisis”.

“The effect on the New Zealand and global economy along with travel restrictions will bring challenges to researchers and research productivity well into the future.”