One of the few good things that have come out of the global coronavirus pandemic is the unique research opportunities that became available for scientists.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, physicians in some countries noticed something rather unexpected – the amount of babies born prematurely seemed to be significantly decreased. Early research in one region of Ireland reported a 73% decrease in very-low birth-weight babies. In Denmark, scientists noticed that there was a 90% drop on extremely premature births compared to previous years. However, in other countries like Nepal, it was noticed that premature babies increased by 30% during lockdown. Scientists expected to find similar results in other economically disadvantaged countries.

Scientists saw this confusion as an opportunity to use the premature birth data as a natural experiment. Physicians still do not completely understand why premature birth happens, or how to prevent it. However, due to the upheaval of the pandemic and the world-wide lockdowns, scientists were offered an opportunity to try to determine the roles of suspected factors that may result in premature birth, including air pollution, hygiene, access to maternity care and stress.

Differences Between Countries

In wealthy, developed countries it is possible that pregnant women enjoyed clean air and developed fewer infections while in lockdown at home than they would have while commuting and going about life-as-normal. In less developed countries, like nations in Africa, stay-at-home orders may have increased exposure to smoke from cooking fires as well as increased stresses due to economic pressures and not being able to work for income.

More than 150 researchers from across the world are now analyzing the differences in premature births across different countries as part of the International Perinatal Outcomes in the Pandemic (iPOP) study. The goal of this global study is to “leverage the most disruptive and widespread ‘natural experiment’ of our lifetime to make rapid discoveries about preterm birth”.

A Natural Experiment

Scientists have relied on natural experiments for a long time, to probe subjects that would be difficult or unethical to investigate through conventional methods (like controlled trials). One example of such a natural experiment is studying the lifelong effects of stress caused by weather disasters in the early life of young children. Scientists have also studied political upheavals, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Following the collapse, alcohol consumption increased in Russia, contributing to a drop in life expectancy. In Cuba, a country that was closely aligned with the Soviet Union, the fall resulted in a period of food and fuel shortages, leading to nationwide weight loss and reduced diabetes rates.

COVID-19 has now created a similar opportunity. Not only are premature births being investigated, but also information on cancer prevalence. During the pandemic, many people did not go to cancer screenings, which concerned physicians. However it also presented an opportunity to look for areas in which doctors were over-diagnosing or over-treating certain people or conditions. In a controlled study, doctors would not have been allowed to ask patients to forgo routine screening.

Shutdowns of large industries also provided a real-world chemistry experiment for atmospheric scientists such as researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany. The scientists tracked changes in air pollutants around the world and compared them with a computer model. The results validated the current understanding of atmospheric chemistry and highlighted areas for further research.

Other scientists are using the pandemic to study the effects of increased screen time on the physical activity of children, impacts of decreased tourism on beach ecosystems, and effects of reduced exposure to colds and allergens on asthmatic children.

Collecting Data

Most of the studies being conducted during the pandemic will unfold slowly as the long-term effects of the pandemic on people are being tracked, while other studies can quickly collect data by focusing on the peak of disruption. Either way, scientists must collect data that captures the perturbations and upheavals caused by COVID-19 and the global lockdown measures.

Researchers have already studied changes in human activity during lockdowns by using mobility reports from Apple and Google. Scientists can also collect data from sources like social media, satellite observations, wearable sensors and sales trends from online shopping. Researchers are trying to extract as many extra data as possible while the pandemic continues to enable more future research.

Existing databases can be used for health studies, such as the UK-based Biobank, which contains genetic and health information for half a million people, or the United States All of Us research program which includes a wide diversity of participants. Then there is the International COVID-19 Data Alliance (ICODA) which compiles data from around the world to support research on COVID-19 and other public health problems.

Studying Nature During Lockdown

Unfortunately not all researchers have success in finding the data they require, so projects are being launched to fill the gaps. Conservationists have erected wildlife cameras in many cities in an attempt to see how wildlife would respond to the unprecedented lull in human activity (an occurrence some have named the ‘Anthropause’). In Chile, small wildcats called güiña (Leopardus guigna) and endangered southern river otters (Lontra provocax) were observed entering the cities. Since researchers do not know if these animals were seen in the cities prior to the lockdowns, studies will continue as lockdowns ease to observe the changes in animal behavior. These studies form part of the COVID Cameratrap Comparison Collaboration.

Dozens of scientists are also involved in a project called Our Ocean in COVID-19. This project is an effort to understand human-ocean interactions during the pandemic, using a new platform called eOceans, that allows citizen scientists and researchers to collect and share ocean data.

Many countries are still in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, with extensive lockdowns in place. Other countries are racing to revive their economies and get back to normal, which creates new risks for species and habitats. Luckily for the researchers, there is still plenty of pandemic disruption to document and data to collect, and hopefully there is still a lot to learn.