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Harvard Medical Labs Go Dark Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

Research labs at the Harvard Medical School shutter due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Research labs at the Harvard Medical School shutter due to the coronavirus pandemic. By Camille G. Caldera
By James S. Bikales, Crimson Staff Writer

Research labs at the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Harvard School of Public Health, and Boston Children’s Hospital will be mothballed except for essential functions for between two weeks and two months due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

These labs had previously been spared from some of the closures and cancellations announced by the University last week, which included shifting all courses to online instruction, requiring undergraduates to leave dormitories by Sunday, and shuttering Faculty of Arts and Sciences research labs.

In addition, the Medical School cancelled its in-person Match Day ceremony scheduled for this Friday — an annual tradition when fourth-year medical students learn where they will spend their residency.

Administrators from each of the three schools wrote a joint email to affiliates of the three schools Friday that principal investigators should develop a plan to “ramp down” laboratory research by March 18, and expect to remain in “period of low productivity” for six to eight weeks.

In a follow-up email to Medical School affiliates Saturday, Dean George Q. Daley wrote that he understood concerns over loss of research productivity, but warned of the “devastating consequences” that could ensue without social distancing.

“As a scientist, I found it difficult to deliver this message to my own lab,” Daley wrote. “But as a physician and steward for this community weighing the grim reports I’m reading from colleagues in Seattle and Italy, I believe the recommendation to shutter our labs is in our collective best interest.”

“There are vanishingly few experiments that take precedence over life and death in our community,” Daley added.

Daley added that a small number of individuals would be allowed access to each lab for “critical needs,” such as taking care of animals, replacing liquid nitrogen, and ensuring the “stability of experimental material.” Researchers studying COVID-19 will receive an exception from the closure.

Daley wrote that a transition to working in shifts would not be enough to prevent the spread of the disease.

“A single infected person will leave a trail of virus,” Daley wrote. “Given that surface contamination is a major mode of transmission, shift workers will be unwittingly exposed.”

On Monday, Boston Children’s Hospital administrators announced the same measures for affiliated basic and translational researchers. Rather than six weeks, the Children Hospital’s closure is only effective through March 31, at which time it may be adjusted or extended.

Louis Robert “Bobby” Hollingsworth IV, who works in a lab at the Children’s Hospital, said his lab will only be “maintaining cell lines and other key reagents” throughout the closure and will not be conducting any experiments.

“No one really has the kind of data they would need to have six to eight weeks of being able to be productive,” Hollingsworth said. “It’s really going to be a huge productivity hit to every single person in lab.”

Hollingsworth said some colleagues in his lab have been freezing cell lines to continue after the hiatus, though they will have to wait for these to thaw once labs re-open.

“It’ll take at least two weeks to get back up and running to thaw the cells they need for the research and then get them healthy and up and running and ready for experimentation,” Hollingsworth said.

Beyond the lab closures, the Medical School also cancelled its annual Match Day festivities. On Match Day, a national program matches fourth-year medical students with hospitals around the country, where they are legally bound to spend their three to seven years of residency.

Typically, students at Harvard gather with family and friends at a Medical School building to open envelopes that reveal their destination one hour before they are revealed by the digital system.

Instead, this year will mark the Medical School’s “first-ever virtual Match Day,” according to an email to fourth-year students from Dean for Students Fidencio Saldana. Students will receive an email with their match assignments — still one hour before they are revealed nationwide — and will have the option of posting videos of individual celebrations to an Instagram account, according to Saldana’s email.

Fourth-year medical student Muhammad Sarib Hussain ’15 said that while he and his peers were “disappointed” that the event was cancelled, there was a “dual recognition” of their role as medical professionals in training.

“The audience was such that they understood the nature of the crisis as well,” Hussain said. “As future physicians, we sort of have this responsibility on ourselves to minimize any further spread of coronavirus.”

Hussain added that there has even been discussion among his fellow fourth-year students regarding volunteering to provide medical care if current hospital staff are overwhelmed. Last week, the United Kingdom’s Medical Schools Council urged schools to provisionally license final year students so that they can join the workforce without delay.

Hussain said he traveled home to Pakistan to be with loved ones when he learns of his match. He said that Medical School administrators have been “super supportive” throughout the week and held daily Zoom calls to answer students’ questions.

“They’ve just been running the full 24-hour clock for us, which has been super appreciated,” Hussain said.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

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Harvard Medical SchoolSchool of Public HealthMedicineHarvard School of Dental MedicineCoronavirus