As researchers and scientists wait out the pandemic, lessons for restarting their labs can be learned from previous disasters that put a halt to research.
The devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has reached every part of the globe and every industry. Countries such as France, Italy, New Zealand, and the UK have implemented some of the most restrictive mass quarantines, and about 90% of the U.S. was under either a state- or city-mandated shelter-in-place order as of mid-April. Governors, however, are making changes to their state’s mandates by the day, leaving academic institutions and businesses to frequently adjust.
Most institutions have followed established emergency preparedness plans to guide staff through stopping research investigations or working remotely as much as possible. And those who have lived through a disaster before know that planning for a shutdown crisis is crucial long before the crisis arrives.
“As far as disaster preparedness goes, there is little difference between a disaster with notice and one without,” says Tracy Wieder, senior manager of Research Support at UHealth Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami.
Wieder was the manager for one of the largest research labs at the University of Houston Medical School when it was devasted by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
The storm dumped 32 trillion gallons of water on the city and the Medical Center suffered about $1.5 billion in damages when the basement of the medical school building was completely filled with water. The flood caused massive loss of research animals and destroyed backup generators that were all housed in the basement.
“Shutting down labs [during COVID-19] will potentially result in losses, even though we aren’t dealing with an event like a hurricane, flood, or earthquake,” she says. “My primary concern during the current shut down has been the potential loss of cell lines and other intellectual property that could happen if a freezer on campus were to go down during this time when staff are not on campus to notice.”
Wieder says she hopes most institutions have made sure lab freezers are on alarm-monitoring systems at all times so if there is a sudden shutdown, lab managers will be notified. But then what?
“My primary concern during the current shut down has been the potential loss of cell lines and other intellectual property that could happen if a freezer on campus were to go down during this time when staff are not on campus to notice.” – Tracy Wieder, senior manager, Research Support, UHealth Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami, Miami, Fla.
“It’s just as critical that labs know what procedures their institute will allow them to follow if there is such a freezer emergency,” Wieder says. “Will any staff be allowed on-site to move samples? If so, do they need special designation? Will repair techs be allowed on site to make repairs and, if so, are the vendors open and willing to come on site?”
Emergency preparedness plans should outline how to deal with sudden shutdown caused by a hurricane, fire, or pandemic, Wieder says. “You have to prepare for instances where people are not allowed to go back to work for an extended period of time,” she adds.
Lessons from Katrina
Vivian Fonseca, MD, assistant dean for Clinical Research and chief of Section of Endocrinology at Tulane University Health Sciences Center, has also experienced the devastation of flood waters. For him, it was New Orleans’ Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
When Katrina hit the city, Fonseca was doing clinical research in his small lab at Tulane as well as participating in the Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes (ACCORD) trial — a multicenter National Institutes of Health (NIH) study involving 10,251 participants with type 2 diabetes.
“Our center had 180 people in the trial and we lost everything,” Fonseca recalls. “For researchers at Tulane, not only couldn’t you go to work, but all your freezers went off, all your animals died, all your samples were lost. We’re talking about years of sample collection, both clinical samples as well as animal samples.”
“We moved to Houston and Baylor University was very generous and gave us some space to function,” he recalls. “We moved the medical students there and did clinics in the VA Hospital.”
“NIH told me I had to do something for the 180 ACCORD participants who were on experimental treatments, so our coordinators did an incredible job,” Fonseca continues. “We went to various shelters in Baton Rouge and Houston with signs reading ‘if you are a patient in trials at Tulane, talk to me.’ We eventually found all but 10 or 15 people and we saw them in some peripheral clinics, and we arranged for a pharmacy to ship them the study medications wherever they were.”
It would be almost one year before Fonseca was allowed to return to his Tulane office.
“The most important thing is having the resilience to carry on and do the best you can. These are very important lessons for everybody in this crisis.” – Vivian Fonseca, MD, assistant dean, Clinical Research, chief of Section of Endocrinology, Tulane University Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, La.
Fonseca says the university has implemented of host of new preparedness systems since Katrina. A major change was to have generators installed on the second floor of the carpark and electricity placed in a section of the building called the freezer farm used by all researchers. The freezer farm houses all freezers in one space, all cataloged, and is on a generator back-up power supply.
Tulane also changed its clinical trial informed consent process. Patients are asked to carry a laminated card showing their clinical trial enrollment and must provide backup contact information in case of emergency. The information is stored on an offsite database that is backed on a regular basis.
Pushing Through Despite Disruptions
Since Tulane shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, Fonseca and fellow researchers have stopped all trials and studies that were not providing a direct benefit to patients. “However, our clinical trials unit remains open and busy,” he says. “We are talking to our patients by telephone and FaceTime, but more importantly we have started several COVID- related clinical trials.”
“This has been a novel learning experience for our clinical research nurses, who have stepped up and learned the principles of infection’ control and personal protection, while learning new protocols involving very sick patients,” Fonseca says. “We are very grateful for their dedication and determination. They have done it again, just as they did after Katrina.”
For Dionysios Chartoumpekis, MD, PhD, from the University of Patras in Patras, Greece, COVID-19 social distancing measures were implemented in early March. The shutdown halted his research program, mouse colonies had to be reduced, and experiments were postponed. Chartoumpekis is one of the Society’s 2020 Early Investigators Award Winners and is working remotely to continue as much research as he is able.
“During these challenging times, my colleagues and I have maintained communication through on-line platforms and we have mainly focused on finalizing some writing projects and analyses that do not necessarily require our presence in the lab,” Chartoumpekis says.
“Based on our conversations, it appears that our priority will be to restart the pending mouse experiments that require a lot of time and effort to perform. Specifically, during the first couple of weeks, we plan to restart the mouse colonies and finalize some benchwork that is necessary for the publication of pending papers and completion of PhD theses of graduate students.” – Dionysios Chartoumpekis, MD, PhD, University of Patras, Patras, Greece
“We are lucky to have dedicated technical personnel and a veterinarian in the School of Medicine animal facility who are taking good care of the mouse colonies during this crisis,” Chartoumpekis continues. “A designated person from each lab can enter once a week to perform some basic tasks such as genotyping of mutant mice offspring. In this way, we should have enough breeders to initialize new experiments once this pandemic crisis cools down.”
“Renewing the sense of membership”
Everyone wonders when life and work will return to normal. When will it be safe to go back to the office and laboratories? How do researchers and lab managers plan for the first day back?
Chartoumpekis says his team has discussed what items top the list.
“Based on our conversations, it appears that our priority will be to restart the pending mouse experiments that require a lot of time and effort to perform,” he says. “Specifically, during the first couple of weeks, we plan to restart the mouse colonies and finalize some benchwork that is necessary for the publication of pending papers and completion of PhD theses of graduate students.”
Wieder suggests teams also focus on reconnecting. “My primary advice is to allow staff ample opportunities to just sit down and talk as a group,” she advises. “Renewing the sense of membership in a team that cares for each other is going to be very important as we all move forward. Some people will be dealing with tremendous loss, grief, and trauma. Others who are not dealing with issues that are quite so serious can offer their help and support.”
“We used to think we had to come to work and keep our personal lives private and out of the work environment but I encourage us all now, in this time, to let that idea go,” she adds.
Wieder and Fonseca share similar survivor sentiments.
“The most important thing is having the resilience to carry on and do the best you can,” Fonseca says. “These are very important lessons for everybody in this crisis.”
—Glenda Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.