Investment in research must be fast-tracked if we are to tackle the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19. We need greater insight into the transmission, progression and epidemiology of this respiratory illness. We need to know the risk factors for infection, the role of asymptomatic or mild infection and the nature of ‘super-spreaders’. We must determine disease seasonality and the viability of the virus in hot, humid environments, and improve estimates of death rates by age.

Research relevant to countries with weaker surveillance, lab facilities and health systems should be prioritized. In those regions, vaccine supply routes should not rely on refrigeration, and diagnostics should be available at the point of care. The World Health Organization is mapping such research and development priorities.

Social-science issues are important, too. These include how to communicate to the public what the options are for managing and preventing the disease, and how to tackle misconceptions and fear and avoid stigmatization. Community engagement and responsibility must be encouraged.