COVID-19 Shuts Down Portions of Important Autism Research

April 20, 2020

Scientists Adapt to Changes in the Workplace

In mid-March, Spectrum Autism Research News alerted the autism community to a troubling new problem with potentially long-term consequences. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists across the nation began to scramble figuring out ways to either continue or alter their research projects as colleges and universities were shutting down, sending their students home in order to transition to remote learning. These actions, intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, established situations where autism research was either halted or hindered, setting back promising projects including clinical trials. CalMatters also reported on this phenomenon, adding that some experimental research may be delayed as much as six months to a year due to the response of COVID-19.

Additionally, autism research conferences like the one for the International Society of Autism Research (INSAR) canceled their spring conference in Seattle. INSAR was hardly alone. Autism conferences at universities including Yale, Stanford, UC Davis, and Purdue have also been called off, which may harm grad students who present at these conferences and use their presentations as a platform to find future employment.

Even though this current research situation sounds bleak, all is not lost. In a later article also from Spectrum, the site described how academic journals were expecting a rise in submitted papers as scientists changed from participating in laboratory work and moved to data analysis and writing papers.

Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience from Princeton University, talked to Spectrum about the shift in his work product. He stated, “It’s important to do experiments, but it’s at least as important to stop and pause and reflect and analyze, and think about what those experiments mean,” Wang says. “I’m using this time to do that with my laboratory.”

Spectrum took to twitter to query scientists about their shifting priorities since COVID-19. The GW Autism Institute tweeted back giving the autism community a glimpse of their objectives, saying, “Our institute will be analyzing data that hasn’t been looked at yet, revising and writing papers, writing grants, and planning for future ways to celebrate autism acceptance month once it is safe for everyone!”

Not every lab is shut down. In a brief email conversation SafeMinds had with Robert K. Naviaux, MD, PhD, who is currently working on clinical trials using the drug suramin to treat symptoms of autism at UCSD, he stated, “We are still working hard. We have made adjustments to comply with social distancing directives, but we are still doing all we can for our autism research. All the work manufacturing suramin for the new SAT2 clinical trial is continuing.”

The next few months for autism research will not go as once planned. Projects will be stalled, and deadlines will be missed. However, many resilient researchers have found ways to stay productive during this challenging time. With ingenuity, flexibility, and resolve of these scientists, the progress of autism research should not be deterred during this pandemic.


Peter Hess. Coronavirus’ effect on autism research may have long-term consequences. Spectrum. March 16, 2020

Rachel Becker. Here’s what happens to science when California’s researchers shelter in place. CALMATTERS. March 26, 2020

Laura Dattaro. Journals prepare for changes as coronavirus interrupts research. Spectrum. March 26, 2020.

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