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Getting Back to the Lab during COVID-19

Careful planning and lots of distancing are critical for R&D labs that have stayed open and those looking to restart

In collaboration with C&EN

Cite this: ACS Chem. Health Saf. 2020, 27, 3, 139–142
Publication Date (Web):May 13, 2020
https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.chas.0c00056

Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society. This publication is licensed under these Terms of Use.

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When the novel coronavirus first hit, academic, industrial, and government laboratories around the world faced a string of tough operating decisions and little time to make them. Some shut down, some moved to minimal maintenance, and the rest kept up full operation—albeit with new measures to protect the health and safety of workers.

In the US, the chemical sector—which includes pharmaceuticals—is designated “essential” under Department of Homeland Security guidelines, and chemical manufacturers remain operating. Research laboratories, however, vary. Many industrial laboratories kept running at least on a partial basis. But most in academia and government closed except for COVID-19-related work. It is a topsy-turvy world with few clear answers.

All laboratories, however, must now embrace a new normal. Lab researchers and directors must determine what will trigger reopening closed laboratories, when to do it, how it can be accomplished—and what to do if the decision turns out to be premature and virus cases resurge. In discussions with lab researchers and directors, two things are clear: it may have been easier to close laboratories than it will be to reopen them, and finding the new normal may be a multiyear process.

At Argonne National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy facility near Chicago, some 3,000 staff—85% of its workforce—are now teleworking, says Kimberly Conroy Sawyer, deputy laboratory director for operations and chief operations officer. (See Figure 1.) The decision to move as many people as possible to telework happened almost overnight, she says, with the state governor’s March 20 order to close nonessential facilities, which included much of Argonne. Most of the lab’s scientists are analyzing data and finding other ways to advance their research projects while telecommuting, she says.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Robert F. Fischetti, group leader of Argonne National Laboratory’s X-ray Sciences Division, monitors a live feed of protein samples as they are inserted into a beamline at the Advanced Photon Source. Credit: Courtesy of Robert Fischetti

Fewer than 100 researchers are working on-site at Argonne, along with a few hundred more support staff, Sawyer estimates. They are primarily working on coronavirus research, centered at the lab’s Advanced Photon Source, a high-energy X-ray source and a major international user facility. Much of the work is mapping protein structures related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, coupling X-ray data with Argonne’s computer facilities. None of the on-site work uses live viruses, says Christopher J. Kramer, Argonne’s head of media relations.

To ensure the well-being of people continuing to work at the lab during the pandemic, Sawyer says, “We instituted new operating decision-making principles, based on employees’ health and welfare, coupled with [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] guidelines.” The new protocols call for additional personal protective equipment, such as face coverings and gloves, as well as social distancing, frequent hand cleaning, and disinfecting. Argonne also issued special badges to track those allowed to continue working on-site.

Kramer underscores that even with all its high-tech equipment, Argonne is really about people—those working on-site as well as from a distance. “We need to take care of both physical and mental well-being. We have a 24-hour hot line to let staff know they are being heard, to make sure they are informed and they know their jobs are important to us. We want to make sure they are ok and we are all going to get through this,” he says.

Princeton University leaders decided in early March to close their campus to undergraduate students and move classes online starting March 23, after spring break. Princeton’s executive director of environmental health and safety, Robin Izzo, had been managing the university’s response to COVID-19 since late January. As the decision to move classes online made her job more complicated, her experience with the virus also became more personal. On March 3 she shared a car ride with a person with a cough and what they both thought was a cold. A few days later, Izzo developed a fever and body aches.

“As ESH head I had been working 15-hour days, 7 days a week, and was very tired. I didn’t have respiratory issues and didn’t think there was too much to worry about,” Izzo says.

To be safe, however, Izzo self-isolated at home with her husband and son. Eventually, she was tested for COVID-19, and by the time the results came back—positive and 12 days after her first symptoms appeared—she fortunately felt much better. She avoided hospitalization, and no one else in her household developed symptoms.

Throughout, Izzo remained the university’s incident emergency commander, directing the university’s response while sick and sequestered in her home.

By the time New Jersey’s governor announced a stay-at-home order, Princeton had surveyed and interviewed researchers and principal investigators to determine which laboratories would be shut down and which would be allowed to stay open.

“We wanted to find out which labs we could just walk away from and which would need continued maintenance and which, if shut down, would result in significant loss of data, funding, or whatever. And we wanted to learn whether labs were doing research that is important to the COVID-19 response,” Izzo says.

She and her colleagues divided the laboratories into categories. Princeton has some 1,000 university laboratories run by more than 200 principal investigators. Most laboratories were simply shut down, requiring only weekly maintenance. Those that remain in operation are mostly conducting COVID-19-related research, Izzo says.

“We’ve gone down to around 10 principal investigator-run lab groups with three to eight researchers each, including faculty, postdocs, grad students, and a few undergrads,” she says.

Princeton’s shutdown approach mirrored that of other universities, says Izzo, who also leads The American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Health and Safety.

Now, she notes, like other schools, Princeton is wrestling with when to reopen and how to protect researchers. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2

Figure 2. Facility managers must decide how many people are allowed in each space before permitting researchers to return. Credit: Courtesy of Princeton University Office of Environmental Health and Safety

The university is considering many options—staggered work times to reduce the number of people in a particular room, distance restrictions, personal protective equipment, constant cleaning, and more. “People are taking this seriously” at Princeton and elsewhere, Izzo says. “We’ve been sharing what we are doing with other universities.”

Among them is the University of Bristol. Like Princeton, Bristol has moved classes online and most other activities to telework, says chemistry professor Timothy C Gallagher. “This began several weeks ago, and the [UK] government says the lockdown could continue for at least another 3 weeks.”

Access to chemistry buildings is very tightly controlled, Gallagher says, and people are allowed to enter only for instrument maintenance and other periodic functions. Shuttering the laboratories has stopped the research progress of the School of Chemistry’s 300 postdocs and graduate students, he says. Although, “The computational chemistry people have more or less carried on,” he notes.

Bristol’s School of Chemistry has put some of its facilities to use by producing and packaging some 1,000 L of World Health Organization-approved isopropanol-based hand sanitizer, with another 2,000 L in the works, Gallagher says. (See Figure 3.) The school gives the sanitizer to the city for distribution. The university has also made 100 dorm rooms available to UK National Health Service workers and volunteers as a place to live separately from their families.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Jingjing Wu (background) and Amelia Pereira (foreground) bottle and label hand sanitizer in a University of Bristol undergraduate lab to distribute to the city. Credit: Timothy Gallagher

Also like Princeton and other universities, Bristol has collected and donated to health service workers hundreds of items of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, and masks that would normally be used for lab research.

Looking ahead, Gallagher is worried: “To be honest, I don’t think we have thought hard about what’s next and how to unlock our labs. Or the detail of what might, or more importantly might not, be involved.”

In contrast to university laboratories, chemical and pharmaceutical industry research laboratories have largely remained open, but few companies were willing to share details of their approaches to lab operations during the pandemic.

Work at ExxonMobil’s Baytown, Texas, technology and engineering center has in large part continued, according to Aaron Stryk, Baytown’s public and government affairs manager. Baytown is one of the global petrochemical firm’s primary technology centers, employing 1,000 scientists and other staff.

Following guidance from the company’s medical and occupational health team as well as CDC guidelines, “All of our facilities have implemented enhanced cleaning procedures to ensure frequently touched surfaces are regularly disinfected,” Stryk tells C&EN. “All personnel are advised to use good health practices, including social distancing, frequent handwashing, temperature monitoring and other hygiene practices.

People who can work from home—most nonlab personnel—are doing so, Stryk says. For those who can’t, Baytown management has modified schedules and allowed researchers to stagger the worktimes to reduce the number of people on site at any one time, and has limited meetings, trainings, and large gatherings.

Stryk would not comment on the impact pandemic-driven changes may have on future operations or business plans.

BASF has also largely continued operations. However, some 40-plus US R&D sites have instituted precautionary safety measures, says spokesperson Katharina Meischen.

BASF’s pandemic response is nearly identical to ExxonMobil’s with a mix of telework, social distancing, health screenings, and increased cleaning and disinfection measures, Meischen says. Projects have been reprioritized to focus on the most critical, she adds.

For a few closed sites, such as a research facility in New York that was closed by a state executive order, BASF has limited on-site staff to those needed to maintain facility security and monitor the condition of chemical R&D equipment, Meischen says.

“While it is clear that the need for continued vigilance and elevated coronavirus response activities will be with us for some time to come,” Meischen notes, “BASF is preparing for an eventual de-escalation of its crisis management protocols. In addition to meeting BASF’s own safety criteria, we will follow requirements set by the federal plan for ‘Opening Up America Again’ as well as those of individual states.”

Officials at pharmaceutical company AbbVie also would not discuss specifics of how it is operating and protecting its lab workers and other staff, some of whom are teleworking. AbbVie did provide anecdotal views based on company-conducted interviews with lab researchers in Germany and the US.

The researchers describe ongoing lab work to develop new medicines, study viruses, and modify stem cells, plus lab work to support clinical trials. To ensure personal safety, they are working in teams to divide the workload and in shifts to reduce the number of people in a lab at one time.

Several note efforts to support continuation of research not related to COVID-19. “I am primarily tasked with maintaining critical cell lines for my colleagues that will enable them to run studies for high-priority projects when the stay-at-home order is lifted,” says Timothy Brayman, a scientist who works at AbbVie’s site in Illinois.

“Oddly enough,” adds Priya Patel, an AbbVie scientist also in Illinois, “collaboration between colleagues has increased exponentially, but is done mostly via online workspaces and video conferencing.”

“But I do miss the company of my lab colleagues and am looking forward to getting back to work all together again soon,” says Lydia Reinhardt, a scientist who works at AbbVie’s research site in Germany. “There is really nothing better than doing my bench work and monitoring my experiments with the motivation that our results will potentially contribute to development of novel therapeutics someday.”

The world’s shuttered R&D laboratories will reopen and scientists will return from working at home. But when it comes time to bring people back on-site, it won’t be just a matter of unlocking doors, turning on lights, and powering up equipment, says Harry Elston, who is a consultant at Argonne and other laboratories. Elston runs Midwest Chemical Safety, an environmental, health, and safety consulting company, headquartered in Illinois.

Elston and Neal Langerman of Advanced Chemical Safety, a California health and safety consulting firm, developed an American Chemical Society webinar intended to aid researchers and health and safety personnel to help them contend with safety issues related to COVID-19. (ACS publishes ACS Chemical Health & Safety and C&EN.)

Elston and Langerman recommend a phased lab reopening approach that could take months—and in some cases maybe years—to complete and will include a host of new lab requirements. Questions at the webinar and a similar ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety “Ask Dr. Safety” event revealed many thorny new needs—more lab space for greater distancing between researchers, increased planning and care in how experiments are set up, and anticipation of additional waves of COVID-19 or even other new viruses that would force laboratories to close again.

Reopening should begin by prioritizing key facilities and relying on individuals who are able to oversee and restart fundamental utilities such as water, electricity, and environmental systems, Elston and Langerman say.

The second phase would involve individual lab assessments done by people experienced with the procedures and instrumentation in individual laboratories; assessors should be chosen for their knowledge and experience rather than position. Aside from ensuring lab equipment is functional, laboratories may need to be reorganized or even renovated to allow for distancing of researchers.

Finally, the laboratory workforce would return, although even then lab activity probably wouldn’t be the same as before the pandemic. Elston and Langerman emphasize that the number of people working should initially be kept as small as possible for the lab to function—as laboratories that kept operating have done—and researchers will need easy access to personal protective equipment. People should work staggered shifts—but also not work alone.

Ideally, people brought back first should be those younger, healthier, and most likely to avoid COVID-19 complications, as well as those with immunity, Elston and Langerman say. However, such selection would likely leave employers open to charges of age and disability discrimination.

Employers will also need to monitor workers closely for illness, and have clear triggers and procedures to shut down laboratories again if needed. One outstanding question in the US is whether employers are liable if someone gets sick after returning to work. This is a particularly tricky question for university researchers such as graduate students or visiting scholars, who may or may not be eligible for workers compensation.

As broader society gets back to work, so too will the world’s scientists—but reopening measures will take time and it seems unlikely that research will return to “business as usual,” as it was before COVID-19, at least until good treatments and a vaccine are available.

“A huge driver of this pandemic is infectivity and the social distancing aspects are a major part of containment. So how do you do that in a busy research lab?” asks Bristol’s Gallagher. “The last thing we need, any of us, is too early a return that triggers a second destructive wave.”

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      Jeff Johnson is a freelance contributor toChemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society. This article was produced in collaboration with C&EN.

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    1. Wakana Ishihara, Kelli Sum, Jenny Lee, Dan Nathan-Roberts. Flunking COVID-19 Out of Schools: A Systematic Review of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions to Minimize Novel Coronavirus-2 in Educational Settings. International Journal of Public Administration 2021, 44 (11-12) , 1018-1027. https://doi.org/10.1080/01900692.2021.1913749
    • Figure 1

      Figure 1. Robert F. Fischetti, group leader of Argonne National Laboratory’s X-ray Sciences Division, monitors a live feed of protein samples as they are inserted into a beamline at the Advanced Photon Source. Credit: Courtesy of Robert Fischetti

      Figure 2

      Figure 2. Facility managers must decide how many people are allowed in each space before permitting researchers to return. Credit: Courtesy of Princeton University Office of Environmental Health and Safety

      Figure 3

      Figure 3. Jingjing Wu (background) and Amelia Pereira (foreground) bottle and label hand sanitizer in a University of Bristol undergraduate lab to distribute to the city. Credit: Timothy Gallagher

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