Mark Holmes and Kim Powers recently described the difficulties of developing COVID-19 responses on the rapid timeline that policy makers expect while maintaining the care that effective science requires as akin to “changing your shoes while riding a bicycle during a hurricane.” That is, the ongoing crisis has many moving parts needing immediate attention from policy assessment to vaccine development. On the flip side, scientific norms are often deliberate (slow), cautious (desiring abundant evidence before recommending actions), and conservative (not prone to change). In other words, the demands of the moment are at odds with the culture of science.

Over the past several years, we have spent considerable effort describing the processes that organize scientific communities, and the implications of that organization for how readily researchers coordinate their efforts in efficient and pragmatically beneficial ways—or how barriers limit such efficiency.

COVID-19 science spans numerous domains that are each important for developing an optimal response to slow the spread of the SARS-COV-2 virus and mitigating consequences of the pandemic. In this essay, we focus particularly on one set of questions that are useful for examining how scientific research has mobilized in response to COVID-19. First, we ask how quickly researchers have begun to identify the constellation of topics key to understanding COVID-19. We also turn to how researchers have coordinated efforts to develop and deploy that understanding—with an eye towards whether disciplinary or geographic boundaries have constrained this response. These questions allow us to describe how quickly and efficiently COVID-19 research has mobilized in a time when we truly need all hands on deck.

Making sense of a new virus

On April 7, New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat published a piece titled “In the Fog of Coronavirus, There Are No Experts,” expressing what had become a popular belief — we’re facing a new foe, and don’t really know how to deal with it. Fellow academics have made similar claims in various personal conversations over the past few months, whether in exasperation about the future or as a means to undermine perspectives they simply don’t want to believe. Here’s the thing. There’s a lot of existing expertise that we can — and must —draw on as we figure out how best to handle the pressing questions of COVID-19. Science writer Ed Yong, in part as a direct response to Douthat, made this point forcefully in The Atlantic noting, “The idea that there are no experts is overly glib.”

While we haven’t encountered this particular virus or its specific conditions before, a wide range of existing expertise is directly relevant to optimizing our response to COVID-19. However, what are those expertise domains, and how can we best leverage them today? Further, how have those aims translated into contributions to our collective efforts aimed at curtailing the spread of SARS-COV-2 and its effects? To answer this first question, we describe a combination of (1) the pragmatic and theoretical domains of existing scientific fields pertinent to COVID-19, with (2) an empirical approach for estimating the nature of topics within published scholarship about COVID-19.

The Need for a Science of Science

A key premise of the push towards interdisciplinary research is that integrative scientific approaches allow for combining knowledge from a range of perspectives in ways that generate more efficient solutions to new problems. That is, mobilization that pulls together researchers from across the scientific spectrum — both substantively and geographically — should accelerate and improve our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Efficient interdisciplinary research doesn’t combine ideas from the multiplicity of approaches haphazardly; we know what types of questions — and corresponding expertise — are likely to be needed for effective response. An efficient and effective response also requires the cumulation and sequencing of successful research —we need to know some things before we can move onto others.

To minimize the devastation a new infectious disease can bring, we need to know (among others): the type of biological agent (virus, bacteria, etc.), how it transmits (person-to-person, vector-borne, etc.), and the likelihood and severity of illness-induced (e.g., the case fatality rate). Moreover, each of those has direct implications for developing testing and vaccine capacities, transmission prevention strategies, and treatment protocols. Collectively these concerns carry consequences for — and are shaped by — any number of other domains, particularly including the political and economic, and extending into virtually every aspect of our individual and collective daily experiences. Our research uses a variety of analytic techniques to examine how science is organized, how this science is leveraged to resolve scientific and practical problems, and here, how that has happened in the face of an emerging pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 has mobilized scientific researchers in unprecedented ways.

The Growth of COVID-19 Research

The scientific community quickly developed a wide-ranging approach to understanding COVID-19, reflecting interdisciplinary and international collaborative efforts. Our analysis uses data from the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed database. Impressively, COVID-19 research grew exponentially to 25,214 publications by June 30, 2020, indicative of the scientific community’s massive mobilization.

Figure 1. Growth in COVID-19 Publications. This is a cumulative count of the number of publications on COVID-19 in the PubMed database, published between Jan 1 and June 30, 2020. The precise search term can be found in the supplementary materials.

Figure 1. Growth in COVID-19 Publications. This is a cumulative count of the number of publications on COVID-19 in the PubMed database, published between Jan 1 and June 30, 2020. The precise search term can be found in the supplementary materials.

In the early stages of the pandemic, observers noticed an emerging cluster of unexplained cases of pneumonia-like symptoms in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. While this sounded early warning bells of the potential for emerging concern, it also pointed to a collection of interrelated questions — what was the source, why was it presenting this way, and why were we seeing it emerge here? Answering these practical questions is tightly connected to a set of related topics in the published literature. Scholars, particularly in China, quickly started examining various outbreaks (a continued focus in literature elsewhere), particularly concerned with identifying the origins of this new illness and describing the common set of symptoms.

These endeavors quickly led to candidate explanations of a viral source. This is represented in the literature on the molecular genetics of virus identification and corresponding testing assays. In combination, these helped determine that SARS-COV-2 was a zoonotic virus that had transitioned to human-to-human transmission and was initially characterized by a range of respiratory symptoms.

As the early outbreaks in China expanded into a full-blown pandemic, research bases also extended globally. The rapidly emerging science of COVID-19 is truly a global effort, illustrated by the 130 countries represented among the publications’ first authors. Several countries (China, the U.S., Italy, and U.K. in particular) are producing disproportionate contributions to this research, but the distribution across the globe highlights impressive and widespread scientific mobilization.