This time last year I could scarcely have imagined the research response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in December 2019 the first cases of coronavirus were just coming to our attention, and even in January when the Chief Medical Officer activated the urgent public health research response, it was impossible to think that before the year was out we’d have reviewed and approved 647 different COVID-19 studies under our fast-track process.
I know that for many of you in research, the festive break will look very different for 2020. You may be working on studies over Christmas, delivering clinical care or planning for 2021, but as we approach the end of an exceptionally busy year, I could not let the opportunity pass to send festive wishes on behalf of everyone at the Health Research Authority.
Health research has never had a higher profile in the UK. This year more than half a million people have taken part in studies to help us learn more about how to prevent, diagnose and treat coronavirus, including almost 30,000 on phase three vaccine trials. We are grateful to each and every one of them. The effort which has seen a safe and effective vaccine developed, tested, and then approved by the Medicine and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in under a year since a new pathogen was discovered is phenomenal, and we are helping to build confidence in the vaccine by reassuring the public about the regulatory process.
This year more than 7,500 participants volunteered to be part of our public involvement matching service, ensuring that researchers were able to design high-quality studies with participants at their heart, without compromising tight timelines. Studies reviewed and approved under our fast-track process were published on our website within three days to ensure clear transparency of research underway, and our rigorous ethical standards have been maintained throughout.
Finally, it’s been heartening to hear excellent feedback from the research community on the role of the HRA this year, especially where this has recognised the personal contribution of volunteers and staff who have gone over and above to deliver our COVID-19 service, reviewing studies in as little as 24 hours from submission, helping high-quality research to start incredibly quickly.
If it’s possible, we hope these staff, volunteers and all of you manage a break in the coming weeks. 2021 will be here before we know it, bringing with it the end of the transition period (guidance for researchers can be found on our website) and more work to deliver against our new strategy, including a pilot project to look at whether a fast-track ethics review process can be offered to other study types, building on the impact of our COVID-19 effort. And that’s not the only change. In February 2021 I’ll be saying a sad goodbye to the HRA and starting my retirement, leaving the organisation in the very capable hands of Professor Matt Westmore.
Oxford University Press has abandoned its usual ceremony to nominate a single ‘word of the year’ for 2020. This year has seen so much new vocabulary added to our conversations … Zoom, lockdown, social distancing and, of course, unprecedented. But the search for a slogan may be easier with research in mind, and my word of the year is pride. I am incredibly proud of the UK research effort, proud of the HRA staff, Research Ethics Committee members and volunteers who have supported it, proud of the public contributors who shaped these studies, proud of the participants who agreed to take part, proud of our world-leading impact and proud to be working with organisations across the research landscape to build on this success for the future. I hope that you feel suitably proud of your own role too.
Wishing you a peaceful Christmas.