With Care, Research Labs Can Reopen, JASONs Say

07.02.20 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

University research laboratories that have been shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic can safely reopen if they adopt measures needed to reduce vulnerability to the disease, according to a new report from the JASON science advisory panel.

“A ramp up will take months and requires careful adherence to rules and processes,” the report said. “Researchers will need to exercise patience and follow procedures that may hinder their productivity, but are ultimately necessary for public health.”

And if things don’t go well, the restart may need to be reversed. “All involved need to appreciate that a research restart may entail a rapid shutdown, as would be necessary if there is evidence that the incidence of infection is increasing.”

See Managing the Risk From COVID-19 During a Return to On-Site University Research, JSR-20-NS1, July 2020.

Few of the recommended procedures — including the use of masks, physical distancing, testing, etc. — are unfamiliar at this point. But the JASON report reviews the underlying scientific rationale for such steps (based on research as of June 2020), as well as their limitations.

“Speaking will increase the dose to others by at least 20 times, even when wearing a mask,” the report notes. Therefore, “If you must speak, speak softly.”

“While speaking is an important part of academic work, minimizing unnecessary speech, and speech in close proximity to a person, can provide substantial benefits. Written text could provide a functional alternative for infrequent communication, especially for laboratory workers in tight spaces.”

While testing may be advisable or even essential, “False positives and false negatives make monitoring the state of the campus through testing difficult,” the JASONs said. “Re-testing to reduce false positives also increases false negatives, and vice-versa. The interaction can have a devastating effect on the overall efficacy of using testing for screening asymptomatic populations.”

While most JASON studies are performed under contract to government agencies, the present study was self-initiated by the panel. (The report number is JSR-20-NS1 where “NS” means “no sponsor.”) It was a voluntary effort of about 25 JASON members led by physicist Peter Fisher of MIT.

The JASON report focuses on the needs of university laboratories, but its findings and recommendations should be broadly applicable to other university settings as well as non-academic environments.