Ethical, regulatory, and practical barriers to COVID-19 research: A stakeholder-informed inventory of concerns

Bryan A. Sisk, Kari Baldwin, Meredith Parsons, James M. DuBois

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Introduction SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) has caused death and economic injury around the globe. The urgent need for COVID-19 research created new ethical, regulatory, and practical challenges. The next public health emergency could be worse than COVID-19. We must learn about these challenges from the experiences of researchers and Research Ethics Committee professionals responsible for these COVID-19 studies to prepare for the next emergency. Materials and methods We conducted an online survey to identify the ethical, oversight, and regulatory challenges of conducting COVID-19 research during the early pandemic, and proposed solutions for overcoming these barriers. Using criterion-based, convenience sampling, we invited researchers who proposed or conducted COVID-19 research to complete an anonymous, online survey about their experiences. We administered a separate but related survey to Institutional Review Board (IRB) professionals who reviewed COVID-19 research studies. The surveys included open-ended and demographic items. We performed inductive content analysis on responses to open-ended survey questions. Results IRB professionals (n = 143) and researchers (n = 211) described 19 types of barriers to COVID-19 research, related to 5 overarching categories: policy and regulatory, biases and misperceptions, institutional and inter-institutional conflicts, risks of harm, and pressure of the pandemic. Researchers and IRB professionals described 8 categories of adaptations and solutions to these challenges: enacting technological solutions; developing protocolbased solutions; disposition and team management; establishing and communicating appropriate standards; national guidance and leadership; maintaining high standards; prioritizing studies before IRB review; and identifying and incorporating experts. Discussion and conclusions This inventory of challenges represents ongoing barriers to studying the current pandemic, and they represent a risk to research during future public health emergencies. Delays in studies of a pandemic during a pandemic threatens the health and safety of the public. We urge the development of a national working group to address these issues before the next public health emergency arises.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0265252
JournalPloS one
Issue number3 March
StatePublished - Mar 2022


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