The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended daily life around the world on a scale few could have imagined. And while many industries are quickly adapting to the new normal – with online courses, video conferencing, and curbside pickup all witnessing an uptick – contingency planning for research laboratories is more complicated.
With government agencies advising social distancing or shelter in place policies, what does that mean for research teams that have experiments in progress, or labs that are handling live animals, cell cultures, or hazardous materials?
The potential impact of the coronavirus on labs can range from research delays and staffing challenges due to illness or facility closure, to disruptions in the supply chain that make it difficult to obtain the materials needed for research to resume.
As we navigate this change, we offer some tips for remote lab management along with examples of how software can help to lessen the impact of disruption due to COVID-19, so that your research can continue unabated.
First and foremost, if you are a Principal Investigator (PI) or mentor of any sort, your team’s safety should be your number one priority. Identify which projects require on-site presence and consider creating staggered work schedules to help reduce workplace density and slow the rate of transmission. For nonessential scientific work, be sure to let students, postdocs, or staff understand that it’s okay not to come into the lab.
Normalize and support your work-from-home policies as best you can. For many, this may be their first time, so set clear expectations, standards, and boundaries. Be mindful that there are people on your team who are either part of a high-risk demographic or who have to care for children or family members at this time and offer your support as best you can.
Take Stock of What You Have and What You Need
Just as families all over are doing the math on how many meals and rolls of toilet paper they’ll need to get through the next few weeks (or months), now is the time to take a thorough inventory of all the materials in your lab. We don’t yet know how long the coronavirus pandemic may impact the day-to-day functions of your lab, but it’s important to be realistic about how much inventory you have in stock, which items are mission critical, and how long you can maintain operations before you’ll need to reorder.
In addition, consider when materials are due to expire – are there perishables that may need to be cleared out? Do you have sufficient supply and storage space for materials with longer shelf lives? Do you have a backup plan for items in cold storage in the event of a power outage?
Lab inventory management software, such as BrightLab, can make it easy to filter and search everything you have in stock, locate duplicates, identify expiring or low stock items, and consolidate reorder requests and shipping information in a single place, wherever you are.
Remember than many suppliers are currently overwhelmed, and deliveries could take longer than usual, so order ahead, but order only enough to satisfy your needs and leave supplies for other labs.
Donate to the Cause
There are reports of clinical testing laboratories that are short on supply of masks, swabs, RNA extraction kits, and other relevant reagents needed to perform tests for COVID-19. Many basic science labs may not have the resources to perform laboratory testing themselves, but they may have spare supplies and volunteer hours to contribute.
As you take stock of your inventory, look for items you have that may be needed elsewhere. Do you have any RNA isolation, reverse transcription kits, or other standard molecular biology reagents such as ethanol, tubes, tips, or unopened boxes of gloves or disposable gowns that you can offer?
Do you have any equipment that can be donated or used for testing or be repurposed?
Check with your local public health officials to find out what is most in-demand in your area, and be sure to check in on your neighboring labs to see if they need help updating their inventory too.
Some local groups (like the RNA Society in California or the RNA Bioscience Initiative with Colorado University) are setting up collection forms to see what can be donated and needed in their local scientific community for diagnostic testing. Check for similar efforts near you.
Keep Communication Open
We understand that you may not want to micro-manage your team at this time, but having too little contact may create confusion for some workers. Make sure there are clear written instructions for everything, and that everyone in your lab knows how to handle all the critical tasks.
What forms of communication are you going to use? Email and chat apps can quickly become cluttered, and paper lab notebooks can sometimes go home with an employee who may not be able to return to the lab when you need it. An electronic lab notebook (ELN) can provide the visibility and transparency that everyone on the team needs to see and access the most vital information in your lab.
Does everyone know which lab equipment will be needed to perform experiments or undergo maintenance? If you have people working on newly flexible hours, having a shared calendar for your assets can provide visibility into what everybody is doing and keep operations running without interruption.
Take Time to Reevaluate Priorities and Processes
Now can be an excellent opportunity to prepare your workflows for adjustments should you have a break from your routine. Those tasks that you’ve been putting off – whether it’s organizing data sets or updating lab notebooks – could all benefit from a little quiet, uninterrupted time away from the lab.
Take the necessary time to evaluate which tasks can be simplified or eliminated for the time being, especially with reduced human resources in the lab. Which tasks can be automated? Are people still spending hours transcribing and reviewing data manually that could be automated via device connectivity and cloud storage? How much time is spent writing and re-writing protocols that could easily be cloned as templates in an ELN?
Technology has changed the definition of “productivity.” Automation allows us to accomplish so much more in a smaller amount of time, so take advantage of this.
Remote Lab Monitoring
Modern technology has introduced multi-functional smart devices like the smartwatch, smart locks, and the smartphone for our personal lives. These innovations can also apply to our work life. Similar to how you can install a smart bulb, smart thermostats, or the voice command Nest or Echo devices in your home, lab monitoring software allows scientists to keep track of their most valuable pieces of equipment; anytime, anywhere.
If you have equipment or machinery in your lab that needs to run even when you aren’t physically present, lab monitoring software can be configured to detect for potential errors – such as atypical speed, temperature, or power consumption – and either alert you to take action, or shut off the power immediately.
Many newer instruments have built-in sensors that can connect to lab monitoring platforms like BrightLab via web APIs. Older instruments can easily be retrofitted with cloud-enabled hardware installations to check for temperature, power usage, or other factors you may need. This type of solution would not only give you access to your experiment data from anywhere, but it would give you the insight and control over you need to keep your lab running remotely.
Staying Positive and Productive
Technology has made our lives much more productive. We can communicate better, do more, and, overall, live enriching lives at home and in our labs. Through this hopefully short journey and beyond, we can use technology to our advantage.
We can use this time to come together while apart, to reach out to online science communities to exchange advice with fellow scientists on creative ways to become even more efficient in the lab. We hope everyone stays safe, and look forward to hearing what techniques your lab employed to adapt and thrive throughout the coronavirus pandemic!
CDC – COVID19 Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/cleaning-disinfection.html
COGR – Institutional and Agency Responses to COVID-19 and Additional Resources: https://www.cogr.edu/institutional-and-agency-responses-covid-19-and-additional-resources
EPA – Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2: https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2
FDA – Guidance on Conduct of Clinical Trials of Medical Products during COVID-19 Pandemic: https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/fda-guidance-conduct-clinical-trials-medical-products-during-covid-19-pandemic
Johns Hopkins University – COVID-19 Research Preparedness Hub: https://hub.jhu.edu/novel-coronavirus-information/research-preparedness/
NIH – Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Information for NIH Applicants and Recipients of NIH Funding: https://grants.nih.gov/grants/natural_disasters/corona-virus.htm
Sigma-Aldrich – Coronavirus COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) Detection, Characterization & Vaccine Production: https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/covid-19.html