Research in times of health crisis: ethical debates and respect of scientific integrity

In a common message, the Ethics Committee of the CNRS and the Mission for Scientific Integrity of the CNRS reiterate the inherent principles of scientific and biomedical research in these times of health crisis: respect for humanist ethical rules and an approach that guarantees the reliability, rigour and honesty of research.

In the context of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, scientific research is confronted with three demands that are in tension with each other. On the one hand, biomedical research must respect humanist ethical principles, while at the same time taking urgent action to find therapeutic solutions to end the pandemic as quickly as possible. On the other hand, in its communication with the general public, it must respond to the legitimate questions of the population, while avoiding the effects of announcements and remaining sober, prudent, didactic and precise. Finally, in its unconditional quest for truth, scientific research must base its approach on principles of scientific integrity that sometimes seem difficult to reconcile with the urgency of the situation. However, this situation does not allow us to dispense with any of these principles. 

It should be remembered that scientific integrity covers all the rules and values that govern scientific activity and guarantee its reliability, rigour and honesty. Their application is essential; only by observing them can science be credible and justify the trust placed in it by society.

There is no justification for bypassing the requirements of the scientific approach and the usual procedures in the name of urgency pragmatism, in particular the reliability and transparency of the methods used, the critical evaluation of publications by peers and the absence of conflicts of interest. We have some reasons to remain optimistic in the current crisis situation. On the one hand, the worldwide availability of data allows for a debate on the reliability of the work carried out; on the other hand, the opening of publications by traditional journals and the online availability of preprints allows for rapid dissemination of information and immediate reactivity to a submitted article and its critical analysis.

In an exceptional situation in many respects, the scientific community must remember, and remind everyone, that its role is to practice, without compromise, honest and responsible research. 

The ethical issues arising from biomedical research are open to debate, especially in the context of the current crisis. They were recently analysed by Emmanuel Hirsch, Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of Paris Saclay in an article entitled “Biomedical research: what ethical principles in times of pandemic? “(The Conversation, 27 March 2020). Here we quote some of his words.

  • The use of non-validated treatment in times of health crisis is an ethical issue. 
  • There is a moral duty to implement rigorous testing and to comply with international standards of good clinical testing practice.
  • The ethics of research in a pandemic situation is an ethics of responsibility, rigour, but also prudence. Its practice framework is inspired by the values of humanity, preservation of dignity, respect for the individual, integrity and loyalty.
  • Transparency on all aspects of care, informed consent, freedom of choice, confidentiality, respect for the person, preservation of dignity” but also, in order to assess the effects of the treatment, the “moral obligation to collect and share all data generated, including from treatments provided for “compassionate use” (access to an unapproved drug outside a clinical test)”.
  • The promises of research, in a context where so much is hoped for, are of such importance that we must not betray them. It is necessary to protect them from polemics, as these risk creating, beyond a mistrust that already threatens our national cohesion, a difficulty in developing medical strategies in a context favourable to the best advances.

We endorse these common-sense remarks which express very clearly the essential principles of ethics in a pandemic situation.

CNRS Ethics Committee (COMETS)
CNRS Mission for Scientific Integrity (MIS) 


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