Addressing the need for timely and reliable evidence in the time of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic brings the importance of high-quality, timely and relevant evidence to the fore. Governments all over the world justify radical policies to control and manage the pandemic with reference to evidence. For clinical and public health measures in particular, such as COVID-19 treatment, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits for health workers and preventive measures (e.g. hand-washing, physical distancing) evidence plays a key role in shaping the policy response.
But there is also a socio-economic crisis unfolding, with the effects felt most acutely by the world’s most vulnerable populations. The UN World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley recently warned the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic, with 265 million facing starvation by the end of 2020. And a recent report warns that as a results of the pandemic global poverty could increase for the first time since 1990, suggesting 420-580 million people could fall into poverty in the most extreme scenario.
While the default is to think that most policies and programmes are well-informed by evidence, in reality most are not. It is not clear that efforts to address the current socio-economic crisis will be any different. There is a high-risk that in the rush to act, well-intentioned responses are focused on doing something, and a prevailing notion that we don’t have time to wait for or consider evidence. But the stakes are higher than ever before and the case for evidence informed action has never been higher.
COVID-19: ‘Infodemic’ and resource waste
Pandemics are characterised by exponential increases, and COVID-19 is no exception. Hand-in-hand with disease transmission we have also seen an exponential growth in research to understand and control the pandemic. By one estimate, more than 23,000 papers have been published on COVID-19 since January and this number is doubling every 20 days. Without a flattening of the curve, there will be about 50 million COVID-19 papers by the end of the year.
The volume of research and knowledge products have perhaps not yet reached the same level in the development sector. But the explosion of COVID-19 focused research, policy briefs, resource guides, guidelines and information hubs we have witnessed over the last few months has certainly reached a level at which we are seeing duplication of research efforts and a lack of targeting priority reach areas.
For example, an ongoing effort by ACE identified 131 evidence hubs explicitly focused on providing evidence sources and guidance on COVID-19. Of these, there are at least 22 different policy-response trackers with similar objectives, methods for tracking policy responses, and relying on the same underlying public data. Add to this a multitude of COVID-19 focused dashboards and data sets. For example, the Data4Covid Living Repository provides an overview of COVID-19 focused data sources, currently listing 214 different national, regional and global initiatives.
To get a sense of the volume of work on other topics we asked one of our research assistants spend 60 minutes to identify as many resources, policy briefs, guides, resource hubs etc. focusing on COVID-19 and education. He identified more than one new source per minute, being constrained by keeping a record, rather than any lack of available resources.
Much of this work is highly valuable and all of it well intentioned. But when we as researchers struggle to keep up, how will time-pressed decision makers make sense of it all? There is a wide range in the quality and reliability of research, and the outpouring of information and research on COVID-19 present challenges for evidence users in separating out what is trustworthy from what is not.
The role of synthesis in informing responses to the current crisis
Evidence synthesis has been designed to address these challenges. Systematic reviews focus on making use of existing evidence in a systematic and transparent manner, appraising the reliability of different research and synthesise and curate findings in a format which makes it easier for decision makers to interpret. The ultimate goal is reducing research waste and improving lives through evidence-informed and better programmes. Instead of having to sift through the results of multiple (and often contradicting) studies, decision makers can access a trustworthy and transparent synthesis of these studies highlighting the overall effects and insights of the body of evidence.
Therefore, 3ie has partnered with the Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) and the Global Evidence Synthesis Initiative (GESI) to develop an Evidence Synthesis Response to the ongoing global health crisis. This initiative will focus on providing easy access to rigorous and timely syntheses to inform COVID-19 responses in low-and middle-income countries.
As part of this initiative we will:
- Develop a collection of existing high-quality systematic reviews of relevance to the COVID-19 response, drawing on the Development Evidence Portal;
- Produce briefs that contextualise the findings of these existing reviews to the current crisis;
- Expand the scope of the Development Evidence Portal to also include rapid reviews and allow for their registration to track (existing and ongoing reviews);
- Produce new or updated evidence syntheses: our goal is to support the production of new (rapid) systematic reviews that address questions of relevance to the COVID-19 response where they do not exist, and/or update existing reviews that are out of date or have serious limitations. To achieve this goal, we will work to establish a fund with contributions from different funders.
The focus of our initiative will be to address questions that both inform the direct responses to COVID-19, as well as actions to address the socio-economic effects of the pandemic.
Take our survey and help inform our work!
Before we rush full steam ahead we want to ensure our work responds to the demands of decision makers. We are therefore conducting a priority setting exercise. Please contribute to our efforts by filling in our short survey and share it in your networks!