Pandemic upheaval offers a huge natural experiment


The disruption that the coronavirus has caused to daily life has created unique research opportunities for scientists.

Soon after COVID-19 lockdowns began in March 2020, physicians in certain nations noticed something unexpected: the number of premature births seemed to plummet. Preliminary research in one region of Ireland documented a 73% decrease in very-low-birth-weight babies1. And scientists in Denmark measured a roughly 90% country-wide drop in extremely premature births compared with the previous five years2. In Nepal, however, researchers reported3 that the risk of preterm birth — before 37 weeks of gestation — jumped by 30% during lockdown, a pandemic trend that scientists expect to find in other economically disadvantaged nations. In some countries, reports of increased numbers of stillbirths further complicated the picture4.

Amid this confusion, scientists saw an opportunity. “If it is real and we’re seeing differences, can we use that as a natural experiment?” says Sarah Stock, who studies maternal and fetal medicine at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Researchers still don’t understand exactly what triggers preterm birth — the leading cause of infant mortality globally — or how to prevent it. But by upending daily life in disparate ways around the world, the pandemic is offering scientists a chance to try to tease apart the role of suspected factors such as air pollution, hygiene, access to maternity care and stress.

Read the full story in Nature.

The project Our Ocean in COVID-19 launched in 2020 to track human–ocean interactions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Credit: Andrea Marshall)