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How the Coronavirus Outbreak Is Impacting Research

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The spread of COVID-19 has caused huge changes in how society functions. Scientific research has been similarly changed. Whilst efforts to fight the virus have seen huge investment in vaccine research, diagnostics and efforts to understand how the virus spreads, other fields of research have largely ground to a halt. We spoke to five scientists about how the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting them.

How is coronavirus impacting your research?

My clinical trials have been severely disrupted at UCSD. We’ve had to limit patient interactions and are working on sending investigational product directly to the patients to avoid them coming in. We are very worried it will compromise the integrity of our studies. We cannot collect pharmacokinetic (PK) labs and are missing key endpoint assessments. Very worried how this will play out if the quarantine is as long as currently estimated.

~Rachel Schade, Research associate III at University of California, San Diego - School of Medicine

COVID-19 has massively impacted my lab work, following the closure of our institute at the University of Leeds. Unfortunately, this means putting our experiments on hold for the foreseeable future. However, whilst doing a PhD it is very easy to neglect the written work and reading when you’re focused so much on experiments in the lab. I think that this has given me the opportunity to catch up on that work. It has also given me time to learn new skills such as R coding for statistics and data analysis – which I have been wanting to learn for a while!

I think the main difficulty is being away from my colleagues and my lab team., However, we have managed to utilize Zoom and Microsoft Teams to still have regular meet ups, such as weekly lab meetings, daily "coffee" chats and we are also thinking about starting up a virtual journal club. My supervisor has also been very helpful by continuing with one-to-one meetings on these platforms and keeping in touch to make sure we are all doing okay. While it is an incredibly difficult time, I am glad I have a great lab group and friends within my institute to keep in contact with online.

~Abigail Byford, MBiol BSc, British Heart Foundation 4-year PhD student, Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine (LICAMM)

Working with non-human subjects, I've encountered several consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak. While COVID-19 won't directly harm our research animals, they could be affected indirectly as this outbreak continues, as many highly-trained professionals are required to ensure their health and wellness. Our animal care staff has been reduced to limit the number of individuals having to work away from home. Consequently, the vets and techs who are still working have had to take on more hours and do types of work that they would not typically do to maintain normal operations.

Additionally, as concern grows surrounding what is still to come with this outbreak, our facility has decided to suspend animal orders and limit in-house breeding programs to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a situation in which we have animals that we cannot properly care for. As a result, new experiments have been disrupted and researchers can only finish ongoing animal work.

In no way do I think that these precautions and decisions are misguided or problematic. I think our animal care staff has been fantastic throughout the chaos caused by COVID-19 and they have put measures in place to effectively handle the situation as it evolves. This situation has highlighted the dedication of animal care staff and how animal health and wellness remains a top priority.

~PhD student, academia, Canada. This interviewee wishes to remain anonymous.

During this semester, I am expected to conduct research and pass a specific exam that assesses my knowledge on my research topic. If I do not pass that exam – which is scheduled for May – I am no longer in the program. I have worked hard for years for this exam, and I had planned months of experiments to acquire the data necessary to succeed.

Unfortunately, I have had to postpone my exam due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now I have transitioned to working from home. This is not too bad as I have the support of my fiancée who is also a graduate student to keep me company. However, I am used to being in a lab for hours and interacting with so many people.

I run an organization (MSU SciComm) and I host The Sci-Files on Impact 89FM. It has been hard to transition meetings virtually while figuring out future events since we do not know how long this will last.

To bring the community together and promote science, we on The Sci-Files are hosting a virtual Q&A session for children in the community to join and meet our scientist interviewees online. I am not sure how long this will last, but I will continue to try to bring the community together through science, whether it is in person or virtually while pursuing my degree.

~Chelsie Boodoo, Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, Michigan State University

I work as an MRI technician in Ecuador and my boss sent me home a few days ago. My father has asthma and he's is particularly vulnerable, so I didn't want to be the one who brings the virus closer to him. I feel for my co-workers currently at the CT/MRI department. I'm one of the few people who understands English (did my Neuroscience undergrad at Glasgow University) and have some Chinese friends (again, thanks to university) and since I'm self-isolating I started to summarize/translate the Zhejiang university COVID-19 clinical
handbook as well as a few scientific articles about the impact of NPIs (non-pharmaceutical interventions) to keep my co-workers and family informed about safety measures at home and the workplace (healthcare related, of course). I wish I could do more for them but at least for now this is all I can do.

~Cristian López Saquisilí – MRI technician, Ecuador

Do you want to share how the global coronavirus pandemic is impacting your research? Let us know at editors@technologynetworks.com

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity