The Duality of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Working from Home and in the Lab
By Dianne van der Wal, Ph.D., and Frederik Denorme, Ph.D.
Since emerging in late 2019, COVID-19 impacted every aspect of life. It drastically changed the way we, as scientists and in general, interact with each other. Face-to-face meetings were discouraged and working or learning from home became the norm. A similar influence was seen in research labs all over the world, with most labs closing down for an indefinite time, focusing on data analysis, literature research, and grant and review writing. However, not all researchers were bound to work from home. Some virologists, immunologist and hematologists were considered essential and continued to work. For them, unprecedented circumstances emerged, with a race against time to better understand this new virus and the associated disease.
All in on COVID-19: Perspective from the U.S.
As the first scientific papers on COVID-19 emerged, it became apparent that thrombotic complications were associated with mortality in COVID-19. With this in mind, thrombosis researchers all over the world zoomed in on two research questions: How does COVID-19 induce blood clots and how can we prevent this? The speed at which these research teams came together was unparalleled mainly because the clock was ticking due to the high transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and high mortality observed in COVID-19 patients. Biosafety labs were equipped while ethical approval was requested and the first patients arrived in the intensive care units. Researchers treaded carefully as little was known on bloodborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2. In our own research institute at the University of Utah, an assembly line was set up starting from the patient bedside to the lab where we ran every possible assay we were allowed to do. While this type of research usually takes years, it took us 57 days from enrolling the first patient to submitting our first manuscript. Needless to say, a lot of blood, sweat and tears were involved.
– Frederik Denorme, Ph.D. (Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.)
Impact beyond COVID-19 research: Perspective from Australia
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is currently under control in some parts of the world, the negative effects on research will be felt for a long time. This is particularly evident in Australia, which managed the COVID-19 crisis very well, yet its research was and remains to be impacted greatly. The epicenter of Australia's second wave was in the state of Victoria, which was forced to go into lockdown for 112 days in 2020. Especially during this lockdown, Melbourne labs were shut down and there was limited access to third party facilities required for research projects. Projects were severely delayed as well due to lab closures or COVID-safe policies. The lack of international students enrolling in Australian universities meant a huge decline in the total research budgets, fewer students working in the lab and has led to bleak career prospects for early career researchers. Due to fewer international freight planes, it was and still is more difficult to obtain reagents from overseas. In general, there have been significant price hikes for reagents and freight, and delivery times are much longer. Patients were unwilling to come to the hospital to donate samples, which has further delayed some research projects.
– Dianne van der Wall, Ph.D. (Sydney, Australia)
Working apart together: The social aspect of the pandemic
For this article, we conducted a global survey of researchers in the field of thrombosis and hemostasis and found that it is crucial for scientists to share research face-to-face and actively remain in touch with our peers. Scientists disclosed in our survey that the lack of face-to-face interactions could lead to less creativity and fewer international collaborations. Furthermore, scientists living abroad miss visiting families and friends. Combined with a lack of clear boundaries between work and home, stress about lab viability or career prospects, the pandemic has really taken a mental toll on researchers irrespective of career stage or geographical localization.
On a positive note, virtual congresses are much more accessible due to low registration fees and no travel costs, which is a huge advantage for early career researchers and individuals from Reach-the-World countries. Yet, Australian scientists indicated in our survey they feel more isolated, as many congresses are held at difficult times, making real-time attendance difficult. Meanwhile, some inspiring initiatives to create a virtual community emerged such as the “Blood and Bone” seminars, as well as “ClotChat”. However, it will be important to provide guidance on using online platforms to disseminate and highlight research, as the online world is here to stay.