Impact of COVID-19 on Research at KU Leuven


04 mei 2020
Auteur(s): David Salazar
As lockdown measures gradually start to be relaxed, we can begin to look back at the events that unfolded over the past few months, the research that has led us through it and the impacts of COVID-19.

by David Salazar Marcano


Full-length article of abridged version written for Science@Leuven magazine.

“All ongoing research at KU Leuven is suspended.”

In mid-March reinforced measures were put in place by the Belgian government to mitigate the effects of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreading across Belgium, which effectively suspended normal daily life for the foreseeable future, and along with it all non-essential research at KU Leuven suddenly ground to a halt. Looking back with the gift of hindsight, this might seem like quite a predictable result. However, a closer look at the details reveals that there is so much more that we now know about COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the disease, that we did not know a few months ago. Our new collective knowledge is greatly due to research being performed all over the world on this novel coronavirus demonstrating the importance of international collaborative scientific research. Nevertheless, the current crisis has had an endless list of consequences for research communities all over the world.

Belgium goes into lockdown

In the beginning of 2020, the novel coronavirus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan and then spread alarmingly throughout China, probably felt like a distant problem as seen from Belgium and certainly had little to no effect on daily life for most people here. However, around mid-March events quickly unfolded as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on the 11th of March while the virus spread across Belgium reaching a total of over 1,000 reported positive cases a day later. Furthermore,  due to the stricter “reinforced measures” implemented in Belgium on the 17th of March almost all activities at KU Leuven campuses ceased including research, which had previously been spared.  All running experiments had to be stopped and only essential personnel needed for maintaining equipment or other research activities that could not be stopped were allowed to go into the offices and labs.

Teaching, group meetings, PhD defenses, presentations and almost every aspect of everyday life for a researcher transitioned to online platforms with heavier reliance on Toledo for teaching and Skype for Business or Zoom as a replacement for face-to-face interactions. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to work effectively from home. For those relying on experiments that can only be performed with the facilities available on campus there is only so much data analysis, literature reading, and writing that can be done. Furthermore, the lack of suitable workspaces, computers, software or even reliable access to the internet can be further hurdles encountered for some while working from home.

In particular, easily accessing publications and other e-resources outside of campus is probably one of the basic requirements for researchers working on writing up their work or planning future experiments. Yet, due to the increased use of  Pulse VPN the servers were overloaded and access to e-resources through the VPN had to be removed. Fortunately, KU Leuven offers many other options for accessing publications such as institutional login to journals or by converting the URL to an EZproxy compliant URL by installing the  Lean Library browser extension, setting up a Bookmarklet, using the  EZproxy website converter, or through Limo. Additionally, in order to further facilitate access to scientific literature, multiple publishers and e-resources adjusted their access rights. Moreover, the importance of open-access publications has become even clearer.

Among the multitude of events that have been cancelled or postponed are conferences, seminars, and courses placing some uncertainty around the fulfilment of the requirements for obtaining the PhD for students in their final year.

Taking these exceptional circumstances into consideration, KU Leuven and the Arenberg Doctoral School adjusted some of their policies. For example, online courses may also be used to fulfill the required number of ECTS credits as long as they are approved and there is evidence of participation in the course. In fact, multiple courses are now being offered online and KU Leuven even offers several Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) available for everyone through the edX platform such as a recently released course on “Beer – the science of brewing”. Furthermore, preliminary and public defenses should either be postponed or performed online if all of the jury members agree and information over online defenses has been provided. 

Looking beyond the PhD defense, future employment is also a major concern for many, as some job positions at institutions across the world have been cancelled due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19, putting career prospects at risk. The looming economic recession is also seen by many as a bad sign since access to research funding may become more restricted. Furthermore, publications have been delayed due to the crisis since the key experiments needed for their completion could no longer take place, and funding applications have been negatively affected for similar reasons. Nevertheless, some funding agencies, like the FWO, have been sympathetic towards the special difficulties faced by many due to the crisis and  some deadlines have been extended.

Several weeks into lockdown

Although the practicalities of working from home were most likely some of the first concerns, particularly in the first few days, additional factors imposed by the stay-at-home policy may have come more into play after several weeks, making life for students and staff alike increasingly difficult. These times are certainly hardest for the people directly affected by COVID-19 who have been infected by the virus themselves, know other people who have fallen ill or have even lost loved ones. In addition, the confinement and isolation resulting from the necessary measures taken by governments all over the world can also take a significant emotional and physical toll on some people, making working or studying significantly harder to undertake. 

Of course, not everyone has been affected equally. Researchers who heavily depend on lab-work or fieldwork are among the hardest hit.

Researchers working on observing natural phenomena may now be delayed by more than just a few months as the narrow window during which observations can be performed has been missed or cut short. Continuing research work from home can also be particularly difficult for researchers with young children or other family members that heavily depend on them. Additionally, international researchers may have found themselves isolated in a foreign country, while far away from their families. Despite this difficult situation, some chose not to return to their home country due to the risks of travelling and out of fears of unwittingly bringing the virus with them to vulnerable family members. Hence, the COVID-19 crisis has had a severe impact on a wide range of people.

Therefore, in order to support all staff members struggling with working from home and the multiple other consequences of the COVID-19 crisis KU Leuven put together multiple resources focusing on mental well-being as well as tips on how to work ergonomically and Pangaea has continued to organize multiple activities to support internationals, albeit online. Additionally, KU Leuven has temporarily relaxed its existing rules for personal emergency leave to allow teleworking parents to use this emergency leave to take care of their children.

On the other hand, not all impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been negative as some people have found themselves much more productive than usual with more time on their hands to do tasks that had been pending for a long time.

Analyzing data, writing and, most importantly, going through the literature have taken the forefront during these times of restricted experimental activity as the pandemic reduced the number of interruptions that would otherwise stand in the way of getting some of these important tasks done. Moreover, these are tasks that can be incredibly beneficial since as stated ironically by a KU Leuven professor “3 months in the lab can save you 5 days in the library”.

Light at the end of the tunnel

On the 15th of April, the National Security Council stated that they envisioned the gradual relaxation of the reinforced measures by early May. In line with this, as of mid-April plans were already being made for researchers to gradually return to their experiments, starting by allowing only a limited number of people back into campus with strict rules being enforced.

In the meantime, research at KU Leuven certainly did not stop altogether because of the pandemic. In fact, multiple researchers across UZ Leuven and KU Leuven continued performing essential research in the fight against COVID-19. In particular, Professor Marc Van Ranst from the Laboratory of Clinical and Epidemiological Virology (Rega Institute) is now well-known for his appearances on the media to inform the Belgian public about the novel virus. He is also part of the Risk Assessment Group and the Coronavirus Scientific Committee, which influence the decisions taken by the Belgian authorities, and his research team is responsible for the discovery in 2004 that the anti-malarial drug chloroquine can also be used against coronaviruses. Furthermore, research into finding a vaccine or other antiviral agents to treat patients with COVID-19 has been ongoing at the Virology and Chemotherapy Laboratory (Rega Institute) led by Professor Johan Nyets. These research groups are but some of the multiple people working at tackling COVID-19 within KU Leuven, alongside healthcare providers who have put their lives at risk on a daily basis to save the lives of others.

Further scientific data on what we know so far about COVID-19 can also be found in a “living paper” from the Rega Institute, which summarizes the rapidly evolving available information in a way that a traditional review would not be able to. It is a non-peer reviewed document, which  is updated weekly and is open to comments as well as additions from readers. Moreover, to encourage this kind of research funding agencies across the world have quickly made funding available for research relating to COVID-19, such as the FWO, which has announced a total budget of € 2.5 million

Although the future may seem at times unclear, we can at least be comforted by the fact that people all over the world are working intensively to provide us with more clarity and solutions to our current problems, as scientific research has always strived to do.

Overall, there are many lessons that we can learn from the events that have taken place over the past few months, which will most likely continue to fuel the scientific literature as research on the subject continues. Hopefully, we will come out of this pandemic more prepared for any future outbreak and with a greater appreciation for healthcare workers, service providers and researchers who have all played instrumental roles in saving lives, maintaining society, and preparing us for a brighter future. What is more, even once the dangers due to the virus are under control we will have to move forward with understanding and compassion by continuing to look out for each other as many people will have had their lives significantly disrupted by the consequences of the pandemic.

Latest statement by the Belgian authorities on COVID-19 can be found here.

More information on COVID-19 from the Belgian authorities available here.

Dynamic graphs with statistics about COVID-19 from Sciensano, the national public health institute of Belgium, can be found here.

All up-to-date information on COVID-19 from KU Leuven can be found here.

Answers to FAQs on the impact of COVID-19 at KU Leuven can be found here.

Latest COVID-19 information from KU Leuven's Faculty of Science available here.

Information concerning COVID-19 from the Arenberg Doctoral School can be found here.

The FWO's COVID-19 measures can be found here