Micrograph of influenza viruses budding from a burst epithelial cell

Influenza viruses (blue) budding from a burst epithelial cell. Credit: Lennart Nilsson, Boehringer Ingelheim International/SPL

COVID-19 brings increased urgency to confronting the societal and scientific challenges posed by infectious disease. In 2020, as the pandemic took hold, the number of articles on infectious disease in the Nature Index database grew by 53.6%, overwhelmingly due to nearly 900 COVID-19 articles published that year.

Despite huge progress in understanding, prevention and treatment over the past century, the human and economic cost of communicable illness, even before the pandemic, was stuck somewhere between staggering and incalculable. A 2020 paper published by the Institute of Labor Economics, a non-profit organization based in Germany, put the economic burden of eight major diseases (HIV/AIDS, malaria, measles, hepatitis, dengue fever, rabies, tuberculosis and yellow fever) at up to US$8 trillion, with more than 156 million life years lost for the year 2016 alone.

For this supplement’s data set, a separate set of keywords for each of 83 diseases plus 5 subcategories (for coronavirus and influenza), curated by the Nature Index team, was used to search abstracts and titles in the Dimensions database from Digital Science. This yielded 1.7 million articles for 2000–20, including 9,816 for 2015–20 that are also tracked in the Nature Index database.

The data and stories here shine a light on some of the research, and the people and institutions behind it, that aims to reduce the infectious-disease burden. Two themes emerge. First, many diseases receive research attention that seems disproportionate to their human and economic cost compared with other diseases. Second, progress increasingly depends on fresh collaborative, multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary approaches, some of which are highlighted in this supplement.