Pandemic preparedness and responsiveness of research review committees: lessons from review of COVID-19 protocols at KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya.
Hinga A., Jeena L., Awuor E., Kahindi J., Munene M., Kinyanjui S., Molyneux S., Marsh V., Kamuya D.
Background: The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and novelty of SARS-CoV-2 presented unprecedented challenges in the review of COVID-19 protocols. We investigated how research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute - Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP) was reviewed, including by institutional and national level committees. Methods: A document review and in-depth interviews with researchers, regulators and research reviewers were conducted. Documents reviewed included research logs of all protocols submitted between April-1-2020 and March-31-2021, feedback letters from review committees for 10 new COVID-19 protocols (n=42), and minutes from 35 COVID-19 research review meetings. Fifteen in-depth interviews were conducted with respondents purposively selected because of their experience of developing or reviewing COVID-19 protocols at the institution level (n=9 researchers, engagement officers and regulators) or their experience in reviewing proposals at a national-level (n=6 committee members). Data were managed and analyzed using MS Excel and NVivo12. Results: Between April-1-2020 and March-31-2021, 30 COVID-19-related submissions by KWTRP researchers were approved. Changes to the review system included strengthening the online system for protocol submission and review, recruiting more reviewers, and trialing a joint review process. The turnaround time from submission to national approval/rejection over this period was faster than pre-pandemic, but slower than the national committee's target. COVID-19-specific ethics questions centred on: virtual informed consent and data collection; COVID-19 prevention, screening and testing procedures; and the challenges of study design and community engagement during the pandemic. Conclusions: The unprecedented challenges of the pandemic and added bureaucratic requirements created a more complex review process and delayed final approval of research protocols. The feasibility of conducting joint review of research during public health emergencies in Kenya needs further investigation. Consideration of the unique COVID-19 ethics issues raised in this paper might aid expedience in current and future reviews.