The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Major universities suspend most lab research — but not into coronavirus

Graduate students from Vishal M. Patel's electrical and computer engineering lab carry equipment to be used for remote lab work necessitated by Johns Hopkins University's response to the coronavirus. (Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University)

This week, Erin Goley froze research at her Johns Hopkins University lab — literally. With the university sending students and professors packing in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Goley stopped experiments in the medical school lab and stored in freezers bacteria that scientists are studying.

Goley, an associate professor of biological chemistry, considers herself fortunate because the research they do — studying how bacterial cells grow and divide, knowledge that could help confront the growing problem of antibacterial resistance — can be paused without losing vast amounts of work.

“Bacteria are pretty amenable to being stuck in the freezer,” she said. “They can be there years on end.”

A growing number of universities are suspending nonessential research, another sign of the vast disruption the pandemic is wreaking, with faculty members and graduate students racing to close labs. The decisions — which would have seemed unthinkable even months ago — are being swiftly implemented at Harvard, Stanford, Duke and Rice universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and elsewhere. At Stanford, the process of scaling down was accelerated Tuesday when public-health officials issued orders to stay home.

At the same time, many schools are pouring support into labs studying the novel coronavirus as part of the effort to find ways to combat it.

At Johns Hopkins, one of the first to act, the decision to scale back affects tens of thousands of researchers at sites around the world, said Denis Wirtz, the school’s vice provost for research.

After telling undergraduates to begin virtual instruction from home, Wirtz said, it was time to ask graduate students and faculty members to “dramatically and drastically cut back on campus research operations.”

‘An earthquake’: Coronavirus crisis rocks higher education, forcing students and professors into uncharted territory

That doesn’t mean research stops in its tracks. The postdoctoral students in Goley’s lab are no longer at the bench every day, and people aren’t huddled around computers discussing findings. Instead, researchers have shifted to analyzing data they have already collected, reading, writing, holding virtual meetings and, in some cases, taking in the online classes for which they would have not had time otherwise.

But the primary production of data in most labs has shut down, said Arturo Casadevall, a professor of molecular microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine. It is unprecedented, he said.

“I think it’s necessary,” Casadevall said. “We are in a crisis, and we need to do everything we can to ameliorate the epidemic.”

He is working to use an old technique to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, engaging antibodies from the blood plasma or serum of people who have recovered from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, to boost the immunity of people most at risk or of people who have been infected.

“We think there is a high chance this would work,” Casadevall said. It could be implemented quickly, “but it needs to be tested and needs to be tested right,” with randomized trials. “That’s what we’re trying to do.”

A network has formed at hospitals across the country, he said, and people are working around the clock to get required approvals. “This is a good story in a time of plague,” he said. “If this works, it’s going to be an even better story.”

Ofer Levy, the director of the Precision Vaccines Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, said he had to draft a rationale for why — despite the restrictions — his team should continue working on developing a coronavirus vaccine targeted toward older populations. Levy received permission in recent days from the hospital and from Harvard Medical School, where he is a professor of pediatrics.

Anything that can be done off-site, such as data management, is being done remotely, Levy said. But there are still people working hands-on in the lab. In his building across the street from Harvard Medical School, usually full of hundreds of people working, there are only a few, he said; it’s even hard to find a cup of coffee.

Many schools are supporting research into covid-19. Johns Hopkins is funding efforts targeting the coronavirus in eight program areas, Wirtz said, including screening tests and treatments. Students and faculty members have offered to help, and interdisciplinary teams are being created to draw on expertise from different parts of the university.

Multiple universities are also offering testing for the coronavirus, hoping to help meet the demand for screening.

But for other types of research, some institutions have made clear they want people working off campus. At Johns Hopkins, security was increased. “We’re going to be looking inside labs,” Wirtz said, to ensure the policies are enforced and that nonessential research has ceased.

At Johns Hopkins, exceptions were made in some critical areas for experiments that take months or years to prepare, including those with custom reagents such as antibodies or animals bred for the research, Wirtz said. But the institution set hard deadlines for three phases of scaling down research.

After Wednesday, no new experiments involving animals were allowed, and a skeleton crew will ensure creatures are fed and cared for.

Exceptions were made for purposes such as clinical trials for cancer-fighting drugs, Wirtz said, experiments in which there is a clear benefit for the human subjects. But after Wednesday, no in-person interviews with human subjects for social science or public-health studies, for example, were permitted.

“There were a lot of things we had to think about very quickly,” Wirtz said. Department leaders were asked to identify lists of critical equipment that must be maintained. Federal agencies have been cooperative and flexible thus far with grant requirements, Wirtz said.

There are many questions from people who oversee research at schools, said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. For graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who rely on grant funding for income, can they still be paid if their lab work is suspended?

Rice officials shared with their researchers recent guidance from the National Institutes of Health reflecting the agency’s understanding that many researchers may not be able to work because of covid-19.

Leaders of top associations representing higher-education institutions wrote to congressional leaders about the research challenges colleges and universities are confronting, suggesting $13 billion be directed to federal agencies that fund research.

Wirtz, who has a large lab, said he knows the decision to shutter labs is upending many lives, including those of faculty members anxious about promotion and tenure, and of students expecting to defend their theses and graduate soon. Earning a doctorate is not easy under normal circumstances, he said, let alone with social distancing, so school officials have been offering mental-health advice.

Amid the anxiety, there’s an understanding of the importance of slowing the spread of the disease to reduce the prospect of overwhelming hospital emergency rooms. “It was the right thing to do,” Wirtz said. “It was a very difficult decision to make.”

University leaders have offered advice on remaining productive without being on campus. “We hope that your remote research activities flourish during this time and that you stay intellectually and virtually close to your co-workers,” Stanford officials wrote this week to faculty members, staffers, postdoctoral researchers and students who have been working in labs. But with rare exceptions, “you now need to stay away from your on-campus workspace,” they wrote.

“What everyone is grappling with is: How do you mitigate, how do we ensure we do as little damage to the research enterprise as possible, given the circumstances?” Smith said. “How do we ensure when the crisis passes, we can ramp right back up?”

Goley said it’s easier for her, as a professor, to take the long view and see that the lab will be back up and running soon. For those who were expecting to defend their theses or apply for postdoctoral work in coming weeks, the decision feels crushing. But ultimately, she said, “we’re data-driven people. We have to lead by example” — and the evidence is clear that people shouldn’t be gathering in large groups.

“We all thought deeply about how we can best use this time,” Goley said just before teaching a graduate seminar online, “to make sure we’re all still thinking about science.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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