Two years in, it is clear that COVID-19 has created an unprecedented focus on health evidence for people working in governments, businesses and non-governmental organizations as well as members of the public. Responsible governments and other bodies have “followed the science” or claimed to.
Since the early days of the pandemic, Cochrane and other research synthesis organizations have been curating and analysing the thousands of studies being published on COVID-19 to help decision makers make sense of the evidence. The arrival of Omicron reinforced the need for timely evidence as decision makers across the globe scrambled to guide healthcare services and the public once again.
Dr Karla Soares-Weiser, Editor in Chief, Cochrane explains, “Like many others, I have been deeply concerned about the widening of existing inequities and the way that those already vulnerable have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. As a community of evidence producers and users, we were not as prepared to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as we could have been.”
Seeking to learn from the experience, in October 2021, Cochrane, invited key thought leaders from around the world to reflect on their experiences of producing, sharing and using evidence during the pandemic. Working with co-sponsor WHO, and co-organizer COVID-END, the event was convened with a view to making a call to action on areas for improvement. A resulting report, published today, discusses the challenges faced and presents recommendations from the meeting.
The report highlights three major challenges:
- The evidence response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been inequitable –in terms of the focus of the evidence, who has been producing it and who it reaches
- Current scientific methods, tools and processes have been pushed to their limits in trying to answer questions at the speed demanded
- In the face of an infodemic, researchers have struggled to communicate scientific uncertainties and gain trust in the evidence
Over the course of 2022, Cochrane will engage with a wider group of experts to take forward the most pressing recommendations, including:
- Building support for creation of evidence synthesis unit/s in low and middle-income countries to help address global imbalance. This will mean some of the world’s poorest communities will have access to relevant evidence on what works in their region.
- Investing in science communications which will strengthen our ability to communicate uncertainty in a way citizens understand, as well as being more proactive about science communication.
- Strengthening of tools, methods, processes and relationships to ensure a rapid and relevant evidence response at national and global levels for the next global health emergency.
The report also calls on other key stakeholders in evidence generation and use to take urgent action:
- Funders to provide resources to meet national and international research needs, which must address inequities; and particularly to fund evidence generation, communication, networks and infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries
- Politicians to demand evidence; be transparent about how (and what) evidence is used in decision making; and to hold to account those deliberately creating and sharing mis/disinformation
- Researchers to support research transparency and data sharing; and raise the alarm about fraudulent studies
- Science communicators to learn what works in communicating uncertainty, generating trust in evidence and countering mis/disinformation
Dr John Grove, Director of the Quality assurance, norms and standards department, Science division. WHO HQ, said,
“WHO, with our clear global mandate, will continue to bring focus to the priority questions, design what is most relevant for countries, combat misinformation, push for reducing inequities of access to the best science, and redouble activities to lead and coordinate these aspects of the response. Our main platform will continue to be building out a living approach to guidance development and implementation.”
Dr Karla Soares-Weiser, Editor in Chief, Cochrane said,
"We have all seen how the COVID-19 pandemic and its wider impacts have claimed many lives around the world. Cochrane Convenes was organized out of a sense of responsibility to learn from our experiences of the evidence response so that we can be better equipped for future health emergencies.
The Cochrane community is a powerful and diverse global network, which we can harness to drive change. Of course, we cannot, and will not, do this in isolation. I hope that this report is therefore a call to action to funders, political leaders and other parts of the research community to join us in taking the recommendations forward."