COVID-19 Causes U.S. Lab Closures

As U.S. institutions and universities shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, researchers are pausing noncritical lab activities for the coming weeks.

Tufts University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have told researchers to stop research in on-campus laboratories for 2 weeks; the schools will reevaluate whether more time is needed at the end of that period. Harvard University also is ending most research in its Arts and Sciences division on its campus for 6 to 8 weeks. Researchers at institutions that have not yet closed are preparing to wrap up as the outbreak evolves.

Long-term shutdowns could mean researchers will have to restart projects or abandon them altogether, wasting time and resources, as well as postponing new scientific insights and discoveries. Because biomedical research requires special equipment, protective gear, ventilation systems, and specially bred lab animals that require care, the work usually can’t be carried on offsite.

“Unfortunately, it means shutting down some long-term experiments,” said Richard Lee, MD, a Harvard researcher whose lab had to end a study of age-related DNA damage in lymphocytes to understand why older people have weaker immune systems. “Stopping those experiments hurts because we lose that amount of time. But everyone has to do their part.”

Even labs conducting coronavirus-related research may face disruptions. “So far we are staying open but the situation is very fluid,” said Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, Chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Casadevall’s lab is researching how to use blood from people who survive COVID-19 to develop a treatment for the infection.

Coronavirus researcher Stanley Perlman, MD, PhD, said his institution, the University of Iowa, is no longer allowing undergraduates to work in labs, and is placing restrictions on graduate students. He hopes things will be back to normal by the end of April.

Source: STAT, March 14, 2020.