As part of Ireland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in accordance with a recommendation in the WHO's ‘A Coordinated Global Research Roadmap’, the Minister for Health established the first National Research Ethics Committee (NREC) to deliver an expedited process for review of COVID-19-related health research.
The Minister for Health established the NREC COVID-19 as a temporary measure to accelerate urgent studies clearly positioned to provide significant evidence for national and global efforts to deal with the virus outbreak. Supporting the NREC COVID-19 was an essential first order of business for the newly established National Office team. The NREC COVID-19 was an important component of the national research response and the process was underpinned by coordination with the other bodies involved in the regulation of health research, including the Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Health Research Consent Declaration Committee.
National Coordinated Response for Research Ethics
During its tenure (April to August 2020), the NREC COVID-19 met frequently, mostly on an expedited weekly basis. The Committee returned decisions on a total of 93 applications for ethics approval; the vast majority of applicants received their outcomes within 24-48 hours of the committee meetings. Demonstrating the value of the NREC COVID-19 over a relatively short period of time is the breadth of its impact in terms of study type and location. Notably, approximately one quarter of research studies approved by the NREC COVID-19 involved an international collaboration. There are many examples of important studies that would otherwise not have been able to proceed to inform the body of knowledge, policy or decision making in a timely manner, where it not for the NREC COVID-19.
NREC COVID-19 Summary of Decisions
As Ireland’s first NREC, the NREC COVID-19 provided proof of principle of the value of a ‘single national ethics opinion’ for Irish health research. A standing subcommittee of the NREC COVID-19 now sits periodically to meet the ethics oversight responsibilities, including review of amendments, associated with the research approved by the Committee.