Outbreaks of infectious diseases generate outbreaks of scientific evidence. In 2016 epidemics of Zika virus emerged, and in 2020, a novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) caused a pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). We compared patterns of scientific publications for the two infections to analyse the evolution of the evidence.
We annotated publications on Zika virus and SARS-CoV-2 that we collected using living evidence databases according to study design. We used descriptive statistics to categorise and compare study designs over time.
We found 2286 publications about Zika virus in 2016 and 21,990 about SARS-CoV-2 up to 24 May 2020, of which we analysed a random sample of 5294 (24%). For both infections, there were more epidemiological than laboratory science studies. Amongst epidemiological studies for both infections, case reports, case series and cross-sectional studies emerged first, cohort and case-control studies were published later. Trials were the last to emerge. The number of preprints was much higher for SARS-CoV-2 than for Zika virus.
Similarities in the overall pattern of publications might be generalizable, whereas differences are compatible with differences in the characteristics of a disease. Understanding how evidence accumulates during disease outbreaks helps us understand which types of public health questions we can answer and when.