It often takes 17 years to move medical research from bench to bedside. In a COVID-19 world could years be made into months, and what are the lessons?
In 2015 Professor Steve Hanney from Brunel University London’s Health Economics Research Group (HERG) led a team in an MRC-funded study to measure time-lags in health research, and identify ways of reducing them.
The paper investigated the translation from basic or discovery research to developed products, policies and practice. Four main approaches to reducing time-lags were identified – increasing resources, working in parallel in overlapping research tracks, starting or working at risk, and improving processes.
Recently, Prof Hanney and others from the original team applied their earlier work to analyse and better understand global efforts to develop a vaccine against COVID-19. Rapid progress in the basic and human research tracks is being made through a combination of large-scale funding, work being conducted in parallel (between different teams globally and through working in overlapping tracks), working at greater (but proportionate) risk to safety and potential financial loses than usual, and adopting new processes.
Going forward through the human trials it will be vital to overlap with work in parallel in the public policy and clinical tracks to allow two things to happen. First, liaison to ensure appropriate trial data are gathered to allow rapid, prioritised approval from the regulatory authorities if the vaccine proves to be both safe and effective. Second, policies are adopted to facilitate immediate introduction of a vaccination programme as soon as there is sufficient evidence for the regulatory approval.
It is already clear that some of the improved processes used in the vaccine development could be used in future, especially in the early research. Equally, it is extremely unlikely that any future research topic will have the same level of resources devoted solely to it, or the same level of prioritisation in terms of the concentration of the time of researchers and the regulatory authorities. How far working in parallel and starting at greater risk will be carried into future research will need careful examination. Prospective monitoring of development of a COVID-19 vaccine could help identify approaches for speeding-up research in future.
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