June 9, 2020

Research ethics during a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to make many adaptations in both our personal and professional lives. Should those changes extend to loosening some of the usual ethical restrictions related to human subject protections for studies related to the pandemic?

Authors of an April 27, 2020, op-ed piece in the Washington Post say yes, we should rethink human subject protections in the current pandemic. “We all face such heightened risk that restrictions on promising research…could easily prove counterproductive in humanitarian terms.”

We couldn’t disagree more, say the authors of a June 8, 2020, entry on Ampersand, the blog published by Public Responsibility In Medicine & Research (PRIM&R), a leading professional organization focusing on research ethics. They offer alternative research approaches they say maintain essential levels of human subject protections. The blog item also includes a link to a supporting opinion in Science.

Here at the UAMS IRB, we are encouraging researchers to think creatively and to use tools available to them to maintain the usual human subject protection standards. For example, we are unable to relax the requirement to obtain written informed consent when required simply because getting such consent is tougher when you’re not meeting with potential subjects in person. Instead, we ask study teams to consider other ways of obtaining signed consent forms, using tools such as email, REDCap, or other possibilities.