Credit: Chris Philpot
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.
As the world moves gingerly to emerge from closures and quarantines, researchers barred from their laboratories are eager and anxious to return. The pandemic isn’t over, however, and what lab work will look like going forward remains to be seen. C&EN spoke with researchers and safety experts about how they tried to ensure workers’ health and safety in labs that continued running and what they’re considering as they look to reopen shuttered R&D facilities in academia, industry, and government.
In the US, the chemical sector, which includes pharmaceuticals, is designated “essential” under Department of Homeland Security guidelines, and chemical manufacturers remain operating. Research labs, however, vary. Many industrial labs have been running at least on a partial basis. But most in academia and government closed except for work related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. It is a topsy-turvy world with few clear answers.
All labs, however, must embrace a new normal. Lab researchers and directors must determine what will justify reopening closed labs, 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 labs 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. 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.
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 virus SARS-CoV-2 and 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] 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 h hotline 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 (EHS), 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 EHS head I had been working 15 h 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 labs would be shut down and which would be allowed to stay open.
Harry Elston of Midwest Chemical Safety and Neal Langerman of Advanced Chemical Safety offer guidance on restarting labs.
▸ Begin with the end in mind: Where do you want to end up? What will “normal” look like?
▸ Plan at the highest level—such as at the department or operational unit level—to be effective but not overwhelmed.
▸ Phase who returns.
▸ Monitor for illness.
▸ Have clear triggers and plans to shut down again if needed.
“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 labs into categories. Princeton has about 1,000 university laboratories run by more than 200 principal investigators. Most labs 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 Division of Chemical Health and Safety.
Now, she notes, like other schools, Princeton is wrestling with when to reopen and how to protect researchers.
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 both classes and work online, says chemistry professor Timothy Gallagher.
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 labs has stopped the research progress of the School of Chemistry’s 300 postdocs and graduate students, he says. But “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 more than 1,000 L of World Health Organization–approved isopropyl alcohol–based hand sanitizer, with another 2,000 L in the works, Gallagher says. 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.
Also like Princeton and other universities, Bristol has collected and donated hundreds of items of personal protective equipment, such as gloves, gowns, and masks that would normally be used for lab research, to health service workers.
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 labs, chemical and pharmaceutical industry research labs 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, the site’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.
To follow 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 hand washing, 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 work times to reduce the number of people on-site at any one time, and it has limited meetings, trainings, and large gatherings.
Stryk would not comment on the impact that 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, spokesperson Katharina Meischen says.
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 deescalation 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, modify stem cells, and 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 work spaces and videoconferencing.”
“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 labs 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 to help researchers and health and safety personnel contend with safety issues related to COVID-19. ACS publishes 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 and 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 other new viruses that would force labs 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, according to Elston and Langerman.
The second phase would involve individual lab assessments done by people experienced with the procedures and instrumentation in individual labs; assessors should be chosen for their knowledge and experience rather than position. Aside from ensuring lab equipment is functional, labs may need to be reorganized or even renovated to allow for distancing of researchers.
In the final phase, 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 labs that kept operating have done—and that 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 labs 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 will take time, and it seems unlikely that research will return to business as usual, 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?” Bristol’s Gallagher asks. “The last thing we need, any of us, is too early a return that triggers a second destructive wave.”
Jeff Johnson is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. A version of this story first appeared in ACS Chemical Health and Safety: cenm.ag/pandemicsafety.