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COVID-19

As research labs reopen, scientists grapple with social distancing’s effects

Erika Beras Jul 27, 2020
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Scientists work in the microbiology department of an Australian laboratory. Research has new constraints and costs post-lockdown. Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
COVID-19

As research labs reopen, scientists grapple with social distancing’s effects

Erika Beras Jul 27, 2020
Heard on:
Scientists work in the microbiology department of an Australian laboratory. Research has new constraints and costs post-lockdown. Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
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In the early days of the pandemic, some scientists turned their attention to researching the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes. But most other scientists had to stop research in their labs. We talked with a few of those scientists a couple of months ago about what it was like to pause their lab work — and what it would take to get it going again. 

When we last heard from Isabella Rauch, she was preparing to reopen her immunology lab at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. A couple of months earlier, she had shut it down, tossing out cell samples and euthanizing mice. Now, her lab is open again — but she can only fit 50% as many scientists into it.

“We do about 50% of the amount of research,” Rauch said. 

The new normal? Masks. Video calls. And extensive cleaning of equipment, such as a microscope that costs more than $100,000.

“You can’t, you know, just spray Lysol over the thing, but we have these very special cleaning agents for each part of the microscope,” Rauch said.

And that takes 15 minutes before and after anybody uses it. 

Meanwhile, re-breeding mice for experiments isn’t going as smoothly as planned. 

“Some of the mice decided they’re just not interested right now,” Rauch said.

At Washington State University’s medical school, labs are also open again in limited capacity. Vice Dean for Research John Roll said the amount of research has been diminished not just by social distancing, but because “researchers are buying [personal protective equipment] with their research funds.” 

That’s money that would otherwise have gone toward other things.

“It may have gone to conference travel, perhaps research assistant salaries, subject compensation, equipment,” Roll said.

Research has also restarted for Dr. Kevin Sheth. He’s a neurologist at Yale who does clinical trials on traumatic brain disorders. One of his studies involves 120 research sites across the country. About half of those are up and running again. But they look different from before. 

“Electronic consent, doing virtual follow-up, making remote assessments, shipping study drug to patients directly,” Sheth said.

And all of that costs money. So the question is, what happens when the original research grant runs out? 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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