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December 15, 2020

Research resuming on campuses

Volume of studies rises following pause early in pandemic
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Chris Cramer, PhD, said in early November the University of Minnesota had reached about 80% of its research output prior to the pandemic.

Dr. Cramer is vice president for research and leader of a research group in the Department of Chemistry. He said the university is keeping lower numbers of people in laboratories and other research sites as well as restricting work involving human participants in uncontrolled environments, such as grade schools.

“Otherwise, we’ve been pretty successful in bringing back most of the stuff that would require someone to come to campus, go to a field site, whatever it might be,” he said.

Students analyze field samples
University of Minnesota students analyze field samples for a microbiology class. (Courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

Early this year, university research leaders described how their institutions delayed the start of new research, reduced staffing in research facilities, and added safety measures to ongoing studies.

By late spring, universities were publishing and implementing phased plans for resuming research, each with their own plans on how to protect investigators, participants, and the public.

Texas A&M University’s Division of Research, for example, published in June plans for how investigators could resume research involving human participants and other clinical studies, as well as published overall research plans including an update as the fall semester began.

Johns Hopkins University officials published their JHU Return to Research Guidance on June 12, with limits on the time and activities allowed on campus, reduced capacity in laboratories, and added responsibilities for reducing transmission risks. The guidance states that some projects may proceed at a slower pace, and some studies may be lower priorities.

Isaac Pessah, PhD, associate dean and professor of molecular biosciences at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said the university had been ramping up research after a substantial reduction early in the pandemic. The university maintained studies deemed essential, continued breeding irreplaceable animal lines, and maintained other animal populations while pausing new studies unrelated to COVID-19.

Starting June 1, UC-Davis officials allowed up to 33% of research personnel on-site for time-sensitive studies, with distancing and personal protective equipment requirements. Starting Oct. 30, the allowances expanded to all studies that need on-site access.

The next phase, whenever that may come, would allow two-thirds of research personnel on-site, resumption of field research, and expansion of all research activities.

Dr. Douglas K. Taylor is senior veterinarian in the Emory University School of Medicine Division of Animal Resources and a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine. He said in late October that Emory’s research-use mouse population—the bulk of the institution’s research animal population—was down about 15% from early March, when it was at an all-time high. The volume of research at the institution also was down about 15%.

“We are certainly not back where we were in the beginning of the year,” he said.

Dr. Joyce Cohen, associate director of animal resources at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and associate professor in the Emory University School of Medicine Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said the primate research facility, in contrast, remained “insanely busy.”

“We never really slowed down much during COVID,” she said. “We stopped doing new projects, but we didn’t stop any ongoing projects with nonhuman primates.”

Shortages, precautions limit studies

Dr. Cohen said that, as the pause on new projects ended, more investigators started studies amid a torrent of ongoing research. The primate research center closed the fiscal year with more than $88 million in grant income, a record high.

“We’re having problems because of monkey shortages,” she said.

In a typical year, Yerkes officials would be able to supplement their rhesus macaque population by buying more. But pharmaceutical companies are competing for all domestic sources of rhesus macaques because importation channels closed during the pandemic.

The Atlantic reported Aug. 31 that China provided 60% of the 35,000 monkeys imported to the U.S. in 2019 but halted those exports early this year.

Dr. Cohen said the center expanded its breeding colony, but each macaque can give birth only each spring, following a six-month gestation period. They become viable for research at 3 years old and optimal for studies at 5.

Dr. Taylor said the physical distancing rules at Emory—and most research institutions he knows of—limit the number of researchers in a procedure room. Dr. Cohen said all of Yerkes’ animal resource staff had returned with staggered shifts, and researchers have adjusted with unusual schedules to reduce laboratory occupancy.

“We still have constraints with PPE,” she said. “It’s still challenging. We’ve been OK. We’ve been able to get things, but it’s never a guarantee that we’ll have enough face shields or enough masks.”

Dr. Cramer said the pandemic also continues to hinder research among people whose work depends on travel, such as investigators in the humanities, social sciences, and geology. The university removed a previous restriction on domestic travel but continues to restrict international travel.

Veterinary researchers, in particular, struggled this year with deciding how to continue clinical trials involving pets and how they should protect pet owners, Dr. Cramer said. A Missouri resident might own a dog with cancer and travel to Minnesota to participate in a clinical trial, he said.

“Should we have them do that, given the challenges associated with it for the individual?” he said. “And then, of course, how do you protect your staff and people in the veterinary clinic?”

By early November, the volume of clinical trials in the veterinary clinic almost met the volume from before the pandemic, in part because travel is less uncertain, Dr. Cramer said.

In the spring, researchers and spokespeople at several universities indicated in interviews with JAVMA News they had reduced breeding of research animals, and a few depopulated mice in efforts to reduce the risks to human health. One institution sent livestock used in teaching laboratories to market earlier than planned.

Some news reports published at that time gave the impression research institutions were implementing widespread euthanasia of research rodents. Dr. Cohen said that, while some institutions euthanized research animals early in the pandemic, she thinks that was rare and institutions more often paused rodent breeding during the uncertain early months.

Institutions give aid, adapt training

Dr. Pessah said research scientists across the UC-Davis campus, including the veterinary school, wonder whether the campus administration had been responsive to concerns about delays in studies unrelated to COVID-19.

“But we are also very cognizant of safety as we move forward to ramp up,” he said. “So there are mitigating programs that have been put in place, especially for more junior faculty that—if your research has been delayed to the point where it has an impact on your ability to fulfill the missions in your grants—you can apply for bridge funding to try to mitigate those delays.”

The Office of Research leads that effort in cooperation with the deans, Dr. Pessah said. The amount available will depend on demand.

Most of the studies out of the School of Veterinary Medicine, though, met the definition of essential research because they deal with topics such as food animal health and food safety or require ongoing data collection to avoid massive losses, Dr. Pessah said.

“We’ve had a very open line of communication with all researchers—whether they use animals, cell lines, or a combination—to make sure that their essential research continues” and their safety is maintained, he said.

As theoreticians, Dr. Cramer and the members of his research group work from home, in doing so following an order from Gov. Tim Walz that all people can work from home when possible. For other teams, the most challenging aspect tended to be deciding how to schedule workspace in ways that give people appropriate distance from one another while considering the space usually needed for their work.

When the fall semester began, though, new researchers needed training on laboratory techniques.

“Sometimes, you need to be standing side by side with somebody,” Dr. Cramer said. “So, we’ve had to think about what things should be delayed in terms of training new people. Can we come up with techniques to deliver training without requiring folks to be too close to one another for too long a period?”

For now, some of the trainers have relied on video-based training, whereas in-person instructors simply stood further away during their lessons and added plexiglass barriers, he said.

Though some researchers at the University of Minnesota developed COVID-19, none of those infections were traced to their workplaces or co-workers, Dr. Cramer said.

As for the research animal population, the University of Minnesota’s mouse population was about 80% of its pre-pandemic total and climbing, Dr. Cramer said. Activity in the vivariums remained down to provide distance between researchers.

Dr. Taylor said that, for research institutions, business was returning to normal. He said researchers at Emory remained dedicated to their work and know it is important.

“The work goes on,” he said. “The animals need to be taken care of. The research needs to move forward.”