Bay Area Researchers Close Labs Under New Restrictions
Bay Area Researchers Close Labs Under New Restrictions

Bay Area Researchers Close Labs Under New Restrictions

Under an area-wide “shelter in place” order, scientists at some of the world’s leading universities scramble to continue working while confined to their homes.

The Scientist Staff
Mar 17, 2020

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Today (March 17), orders took effect in six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, plus nearby Santa Cruz County, that forbid residents to leave their homes except for work in industries deemed essential or for a handful of other approved activities, such as buying food. For researchers at institutions such as Stanford University and the University of California’s (UC) Berkeley, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz campuses, the directives, which will be in place until April 7, are bringing most lab experiments to a halt. 

As for clinical research, the order “takes the challenges that people were having with running trials, getting patients, running a company that we started to experience at the beginning of last week—and just ratchets it up 50 notches in a matter of moments,” Greg Dombal of Halloran Consulting Group tells STAT. While pharma and biotech workers are exempt from the order, the publication notes, the COVID-19 pandemic is making trials more difficult in other ways, such as leading hospitals to restrict the hours during which study-related activities can be conducted.

At Primity Bio in San Francisco, a contract research organization that processes patient samples from clinical trials, certain aspects of operations have been postponed, pared down, or are being done remotely to maintain social distancing, Hans Layman, the company’s science director, writes in an email to The Scientist

“This data is important in dosing decisions for patients, to take a patient off-study, or what mitigation strategies may be necessary for that patient,” Layman says, explaining that lab workers have now been separated into morning and afternoon shifts to minimize person-to-person contact. On the whole, the lab is having to work harder to source certain reagents, but the majority of antibodies, buffers, and media used are well-stocked.

Nejat Düzgüneş, a microbiologist at Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in San Francisco, writes in an email that, now that the university is closed until at least April 7, one of his postdocs, who is Polish, is unlikely to be able to complete his experiments before his visa expires at the end of April. The postdoc has been testing the toxicity of novel photosensitizer molecules against oral cancer cells, Düzgüneş explains. “On a positive aspect of ‘shelter-in-place,’” he adds, “I can now stay at home to write my grant applications!”

Across the bay at the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab, shelter-in-place plans are still taking shape, writes operations manager Peggy Hellweg in an email to The Scientist. Her team is “figuring out details of the configuration of our new daily schedules, and, as managers, how to make sure all our people are taken care of and can do their jobs, remotely,” she says. Her lab has an advantage in that respect because most tasks “involve using computers, so that means we can ‘do them from anywhere.’” Hellweg adds that the public safety power shutoffs at UC Berkeley during last October’s wildfires were good practice for the current lockdown, as are ongoing earthquake response plans.

Even as they encouraged faculty, staff, and trainees to comply with the orders, institutions allowed for wiggle room for animal care and other critical tasks that can only be performed in person (such exceptions are also allowed under the legal orders). In a directive dated March 15, for example, UC San Francisco administrators instructed faculty to identify a “skeleton crew” to maintain “essential animal lines, equipment, liquid nitrogen stocks, and certain long-term experiments.” At the same time, they wrote, “In mouse facilities, breeding should be reduced to the minimum possible; no increases in cage counts will be permitted and all researchers should plan for additional reductions of cage counts in the future.”

Despite such provisions, the shelter-in-place order is “a major set-back to our research program,” Ellen Robey, a professor of immunology and pathogenesis at UC Berkeley, writes in an email to The Scientist. “I am particularly concerned about 2 of my grad students who were working hard to finish their thesis research and get their manuscripts submitted and accepted.” 

The order also affects the use of animals in Robey’s lab. “A lot of our experiments use unique strains of genetically engineered mice, and our experiments are time sensitive, because we have to use the mice whenever they are available,” she says. “When we finally get back to normal with the virus, we may not have mice available for our studies. Papers, grants, graduations, and career progress will all be delayed.”

Matthew Porteus, a stem cell researcher at Stanford Medical School, writes in an email that the restrictions are “Clearly an inconvenience for research,” emphasizing that they’re “also clearly the right thing to do until we understand better how this virus is going to ripple/tear through our society.” In the meantime, he’s continuing his work through the use of “lots of Zoom meetings.”

See “Coronavirus Precautions Stifle Research

Update (March 18): Comments from Nejat Düzgüneş and Ellen Robey have been added to this article.