Key ethical issues encountered during COVID-19 research: a thematic analysis of perspectives from South African research ethics committees

Background The COVID-19 pandemic presents significant challenges to research ethics committees (RECs) in balancing urgency of review of COVID-19 research with careful consideration of risks and benefits. In the African context, RECs are further challenged by historical mistrust of research and potential impacts on COVID-19 related research participation, as well as the need to facilitate equitable access to effective treatments or vaccines for COVID-19. In South Africa, an absent National Health Research Ethics Council (NHREC) also left RECs without national guidance for a significant duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. We conducted a qualitative descriptive study that explored the perspectives and experiences of RECs regarding the ethical challenges of COVID-19 research in South Africa. Methods We conducted in-depth interviews with 21 REC chairpersons or members from seven RECs at large academic health institutions across South Africa that were actively involved in the review of COVID-19 related research from January to April 2021. In-depth interviews were conducted remotely via Zoom. Interviews (60–125 min) were conducted in English using an in-depth interview guide, until data saturation was achieved. Audio-recordings were transcribed verbatim and field notes were converted into data documents. Line-by-line coding of transcripts was performed, and data were organised into themes and sub-themes. An inductive approach to thematic analysis was used to analyse data. Results Five main themes were identified, namely: rapidly evolving research ethics landscape, extreme vulnerability of research participants, unique challenges to informed consent, challenges to community engagement during COVID-19, and overlapping research ethics and public health equity issues. Sub-themes were identified for each main theme. Conclusions Numerous, significant ethical complexities and challenges were identified by South African REC members in the review of COVID-19 related research. While RECs are resilient and adaptable, reviewer and REC member fatigue were major concerns. The numerous ethical issues identified also highlight the need for research ethics teaching and training, especially in informed consent, as well as the urgent requirement for the development of national guidelines for research ethics during public health emergencies. Further, comparative analysis between different countries is needed to develop the discourse around African RECs and COVID-19 research ethics issues.