This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
Sarah Fortune leads a lab of about 20 scientists who study tuberculosis. The lab at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is in a biosafety level 3 containment facility, so researchers must wear N95 personal respirator masks and full-body Tyvek protection suits to experiment on specimens of the disease that in 2018 killed 1.5 million worldwide.
The researchers investigate drug resistance and host response, which is important in preclinical vaccine development. But last week, as the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and the U.S. continued to rise, Fortune had to make a gut-wrenching decision.
Her lab came to a complete stop.
Scientists saved what data they could and destroyed cultures and other materials they couldn’t, but they didn’t stop there. They donated their masks, suits, and respirators to local health care clinics to use as coronavirus cases continue to escalate.
“We have this special responsibility to share our personal protective equipment with health care workers,” said Fortune, the John LaPorte Given Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Chan School who is also director of the TB Research Program at the Ragon Institute of MGH, Harvard, and MIT. “We all feel like if we — especially us who understand so clearly what this could be — don’t really fully make hard sacrifices, then how could we ask anybody else in our community to do that?”
Decisions like this are happening all across Harvard as scientists have rapidly scaled down the work in their laboratories to only essential functions as part of a massive effort to de-densify the University and lower the risk of infection through social distancing. In some cases, they’ve also had to figure out how to keep research subjects alive and sensitive equipment functioning. At the same time, other Harvard labs are racing to learn the secrets of coronavirus in the search for a vaccine.
Labs have closed in the Faculty of Arts and Science’s Division of Science, the Harvard John E. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Harvard Medical School, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Dental School, and affiliated hospitals. The closure’s affect a wide range of scientific studies, from plants and rocks to Alzheimer’s and cancer.
The ramp-down went into wide effect on March 18.
The first announcement of the scale-down came in a March 12 email co-written by FAS Dean Claudine Gay, SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench, Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs, Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo, and Dean of Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey.
The next day the deans of the Medical School, Dental School, and the School of Public Health jointly announced they, too, would be entering a period of “low productivity.” On Saturday, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard followed suit, as did the Wyss Institute.
The deans asked principal investigators to identify key individuals and essential tasks that must be completed during the ramp-down to avoid significant financial and data loss.
“The policy that we put in place asks the research community to limit their time on campus to sustaining research organisms, keeping irreplaceable samples, and making sure that high-value apparatus doesn’t get damaged,” Stubbs said. “It’s essentially putting our research activities into suspended animation.”
Stubbs said the impact on both cost and careers was carefully considered before the decision was made, but it was important to act decisively to help flatten the curve of coronavirus infections.
“It’s essential that we keep, to the maximum extent possible, the number of people who turn up at hospitals within the capacity of the healthcare system,” he said. “I don’t mean to be alarmist here, but we’re trying to reduce the number of people who are going to die.”
Normally, scientific research never stops. But by the end of business on March 18, many projects at Harvard effectively went dark. Leading up to that, many labs worked to make sure machines such as cryogenic freezers and superconducting magnets would be properly maintained by essential staff, and that the model organisms they work with — fruit flies, worms, and zebrafish — would be well cared for as most research scientists observe social distancing guidelines.
Roger Fu, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at FAS, said no one from his paleomagnetics lab will be going into the physically lab space for the duration of the scale-down. Instead, his team of eight postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergrads will do remote data analysis with the computers and equipment they took home. The team studies the magnetic properties of rocks to understand planet formation and the early Earth.