Coronavirus Will Destroy Years of Scientific Progress

Scientists all over the world have to put their research on hold due to coronavirus and their work could be lost forever

Dr. Cullen Taniguchi, a cancer doctor and researcher at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, got an email on the morning of Sunday, March 22 that forced him to dismantle his life’s work.

For the last six years, Taniguchi has run a laboratory that researches and develops new ways to treat pancreatic cancer and improve existing treatments. His lab grows the cells it needs to run experiments in incubators. Some of them come from patients or are modified in a way that makes them, Taniguchi says, “unique to the world.”

The email, from the center’s administration, informed Taniguchi that in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus, he and his staff of eight lab managers, researchers, and assistants had 24 hours to shut down their lab — possibly damaging those precious cells in the process.

Mixtures of chemicals Taniguchi’s team had spent years developing for experiments had to be safely put away or thrown out. Lab managers set up a system for preserving mice they used for experiments. And the cells they spent years developing had to be preserved in a way that Taniguchi likens to freezing them in time.

“But when you thaw them out, they’re never quite the same,” he says.“You actually have to spend a couple of years getting back to where they were before.”

Taniguchi estimates that several years of cancer research were lost in his lab alone because of the closure, which is likely to last for months. It happened so quickly that he didn’t have enough time to grieve the loss of several years of scientific progress. Taniguchi and his team were in disbelief.

“I think there’s still folks struggling to deal with it,” he says.

Taniguchi says he was one of “hundreds of scientists” at MD Anderson that day racing to preserve or discontinue experiments and research. And there are countless other scientists around the world who have had to shut down their research, studies, surveys, and experiments because of the coronavirus. Most scientific research unrelated to the virus has halted, impacting tens of thousands of people in some instances. And the indefinite shutdown of much of the world’s scientific community could have an impact on scientists and the communities they seek to serve and learn about for decades.

Fiona Burlig is an economist who studies energy and the environment in India and the U.S. She can do some of her research — like looking at trends in electricity consumption by electric cars — at home in her pajamas. But some of the other research she was conducting in Delhi, India, was put on hold in early March by the University of Chicago, where she works. A couple of weeks later, the entire country of India locked down for 21 days.

Burlig was working on two projects when the University of Chicago’s shutdown order came. One was studying how 8,000 households respond to receiving detailed information about how their electricity bills are structured. The other is a follow-up to that experiment to see how those households respond to receiving a subsidy for their electric bill.

Both projects required working with utility companies and local electricity regulators and face-to-face interviews with families in Delhi, none of which can happen while the country is on lockdown. So, she says, her surveyors on the ground are “hunkered down at home” working on administrative tasks. “But [they aren’t] really able to make any progress at the moment,” she says.

Whenever the surveyors are able to get back to work, they’ll likely take an extra week or two to refresh their memory on how to conduct interviews and explain electricity bills before they can get back to going door-to-door interviewing families about their energy use. Her team will have to account for time and data lost during the lockdown when writing reports about the study.

For some researchers, it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions and expectations as research institutions figure out what labs have essential functions that need to be maintained throughout lab closures.

Lauren Diepenbrock, an entomologist, works at a research station of the University of Florida in Central Florida. Her lab researches how a bug called the Asian citrus psyllid transports disease-causing bacteria to citrus trees. She uses that information to help citrus growers in the state of Florida keep their trees healthy, so she does work in the lab and in the field.

That work was put on hold on March 23 when the university ordered her lab to shut down. There were a few staff members on her team of seven, including Diepenbrock, who were given access to the lab so they could water plants and tend to insect colonies being used for research.

“We had projects that we basically just had to kill and put [bugs] in the freezer,” she says.

During the first several days of the shutdown, Diepenbrock didn’t think she would be able to get out to some of the sites in Florida where she conducts field research. But on April 5, she emailed OneZero saying that she received minimal access to those sites, “so we don’t lose years of research.”

“I guess that is a benefit of being in agriculture — we are on the ‘essential’ side of things to a point,” she wrote.

She estimates that it will take a couple of months to get back to the point where they were before the university ordered labs to shut down in late March.

Even when scientists get back to work full time, they may lose more than just time and data to the lockdowns. Multiple scientists told OneZero that interruptions in research could impact funding for future studies, tenure-track considerations, and alter the careers of thousands of young scientists working on their dissertations.

“There’s a lot of scientists who are going to be potentially in trouble in a couple years,” Taniguchi says. “Society has a very short memory. Institutions have a very short memory. So in a couple years, it would not be surprising to me to see a big just attrition of scientists who went through this right now. And it’s a very sad situation.”

Despite that, Taniguchi says he and his team were resolute about shutting down to do their part to flatten the curve. The same goes for Burlig and Diepenbrock.

As the scientists mourn the loss of their work, they’re also looking for ways to continue their work and contribute to the global fight against the coronavirus in other ways. Many of them are donating PPE and masks to hospitals and medical professionals where they live.

And Taniguchi still has his work as a doctor. He says that the lab closures have actually made his work environment at the MD Anderson hospital calmer because there are fewer people around to potentially spread coronavirus. “I think the measures that they’ve taken, though it feels extreme on the research side of things, I think it’s kept things relatively calm at the clinical hospital,” he says. “So that makes all this worth it.”

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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