In recent months, scientific organisations all over the world have seen their laboratory access significantly reduced in order to enforce social distancing measures and limit the spread of the coronavirus. Some researchers have paused their laboratory research completely and instead are doing as much work as they can from home[i], whilst others have enforced limited time in the labs, with strict rotas to reduce contact. This has led to significant setbacks in research progress and understandable concern, particularly for academics, with regards to the progress of important projects[ii] as well as extending research funding and meeting required deadlines. Thankfully many funding bodies have extended funding timescales to support researchers in these challenging times[iii].

Whilst some research has been put on hold, research relating to Covid-19 has seen rapid and significant expansion, with many research labs shifting their focus to find possible treatments, develop vaccines, carry out virus testing and manufacture essential PPE. With emergency funding becoming widely available[iv],[v], both academia[vi] and industry[vii] have stepped up to accelerate this essential research, expanding existing public health and virus projects as well as efficiently adapting existing skill sets to focus on this new goal. This has not only demonstrated the adaptability of researchers but also the need for adaptable lab space and sharing of equipment and resources to facilitate this large-scale redirection.

Test, test, test!

Widespread virus testing is a key pillar in controlling the spread of COVID-19, with governments and the World Health Organisation emphasising its importance[viii]. As such, many labs have offered their expertise and equipment to carry out diagnostic testing and help reach testing targets. Universities and research institutions have offered existing lab space, including labs at Manchester University[ix] and the Francis Crick Institute[x]. Kings College London is also working to improve the efficiency and design of new testing protocols[xi]. Driven by the need to rapidly expand testing capacities, this requires the repurposing of equipment, reagents and software as well as the use of researchers’ existing skill sets for this new purpose[xii].

Public institutions are not alone in undertaking this transition. Life science companies have also begun offering their services for local testing. Igneomix is part of an international laboratory network in 19 different countries offering testing and is just one of many companies that has diverted its resources to carry out COVID-19 PCR tests for both private and NHS patients[xiii].

Flex to adapt

As we’ve seen with this increase in testing capacities, the ability of labs to rapidly adapt to a new purpose has been essential in the response to this pandemic. This has required not only flexibility within teams as they change their focus, but also the flexibility of lab space and equipment. Many teams, whilst reducing or suspending their own use of lab space, have welcomed other teams to use their facilities for essential research.

Being able to share resources and space whilst maintaining important social distancing measures and minimising contact is a logistical conundrum for many labs keen to offer their services, equipment and facilities. Axolbio is one such company[xiv] using Clustermarket to facilitate the process. Clustermarket is an online platform that allows organisations to make their equipment available to those outside their organisation with ease.

Getting research back on track

The scientific community has made leaps and strides in COVID research in the last few months, but concern over the implications of long-term shutdown on scientific discovery in other areas remains.  “We’re going to lose a lot of science,” commented Holden Thorp, the editor-in-chief of the Science journals2. Climate change, water security, sustainable food supply and other deadly diseases are issues that have not gone away and we will need to restart research into these areas as efficiently as possible to overcome these other global challenges.

“We’re going to lose a lot of science” – Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science Journals

It is therefore more important than ever for labs to retain this new-found flexibility in order to progress this research efficiently while maintaining new regulations to protect researchers’ safety and limit viral transmission. Alongside its external booking platform, Clustermarket offers Bookkit, its lab management software. Bookkit’s online booking system enables people to monitor and control availability to optimise use in quiet periods, making it much easier to create a schedule whilst minimising social contact. This type of lab booking system will be an important addition to many labs as they return to work. Bookkit allows users to manage equipment and users remotely, enabling users to control the number of users in the lab at any one time, either by restricting lab access or creating compatible shifts/schedules. This is a straightforward way for lab managers to optimise the use of equipment and create safe working environments.

This period of uncertainty has brought challenges for the scientific community, but it has also demonstrated the strength and adaptability of researchers all over the world. It is likely to transform the way science is undertaken for years to come, with the technologies implemented to fight this pandemic being used for much wider scientific progress.

Author: Tobias Wingbermuehle, Director Clustermarket Ltd