10 Tips to Maintain Physical Distancing in the Lab

Laboratories can be crowded places. We are used to working around other people, tossing ideas back and forth. Dark rooms, cold rooms and large equipment spaces are often shared by several labs. Some labs have shut down completely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; others, especially those labs doing research around coronavirus biology, testing and detection and drug development are running continually. For those labs, maintaining the recommended 6-foot (2m) distance to help stem the coronavirus pandemic isn’t easy.

At Promega our operations, quality assurance, applications and research and development labs are up and running—focused on providing as much support as possible to our partners who are studying, diagnosing and developing treatments for COVID-19.  At the same time, we are maximizing the safety of our employees. Here are a few ways we have found to maintain critical distances in our laboratory that might help your lab group stay productive and safe too.

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How the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus Enters Host Cells and How To Block It

TE micrograph of a single MERS-CoV
Photo courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

In December 2019, a new disease emerged from a seafood market in Wuhan, China. People who were infected began experiencing fever, dry cough, muscle aches and shortness of breath. The disease swept through China like wildfire and quickly spread overseas to almost every continent. We now know the virus that caused this disease, SARS-CoV-2, is a member of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, and the disease itself was officially named COVID-19. According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, there are 877,422 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and 43,537 total deaths at the publication of this blog. Those numbers are only expected to increase over the next few weeks.

In this moment of crisis, scientists all around the world are desperately trying to find ways to treat and prevent the disease. One strategy for preventing the spread of the virus is to block its entry into human cells. But first we need to understand how SARS-CoV-2 enters human cells. A research group at the German Primate Center led by Dr. Stefan Pohlmann provides some answers in a recent publication in Cell.

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Connecting and Collaborating: How Scientists Across the Globe are Supporting Each Other During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Many research labs around the world have temporarily closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while others are experiencing unprecedented need for reagents to perform viral testing. This urgency has led many scientists to make new connections and build creative, collaborative solutions.

“In labs that are still open for testing or other purposes, there’s certainly heightened anxiety,” says Tony Vanden Bush, Client Support Specialist. “I feel that right now, I need to help them deal with that stress however possible.”

Last week, Tony was contacted by a lab at the University of Minnesota that was preparing to serve as a secondary COVID-19 testing facility for a nearby hospital lab. The two labs needed to process up to 6,000 samples per day, and the university lab was far short of that capacity.

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RNA Extraction for Clinical Testing—Do Not Try this with Home-brew

This blog was written with much guidance from Jennifer Romanin, Senior Director IVD Operations and Global Service and Support, and Ron Wheeler, Senior Director, Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs at Promega.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Back in the day when we all walked two miles uphill in the snow to get to our laboratories, RNA and DNA extraction was a home-brew experience. You made your own buffers, prepped your own columns and spent hours lysing cells, centrifuging samples, and collecting that fluorescing, ethidium bromide-stained band of RNA in the dark room from a tube suspended over a UV box. Just like master beer brewers tweak their protocols to produce better brews, you could tweak your methodology and become a “master isolater” of RNA. You might get mostly consistent results, but there was no guarantee that your protocol would work as well in the hands of a novice.

Enter the biotechnology companies with RNA and DNA isolation kits—kits and columns manufactured under highly controlled conditions delivering higher quality and reproducibility than your home-brew method. These systems have enabled us to design ever more sensitive downstream assays–assays that rely on high-quality input DNA and RNA, like RT-qPCR assays that can detect the presence of a specific RNA molecule on a swab containing only a few hundred cells. With these assays, contaminants from a home-brew isolation could result in false positives or false negatives or simply confused results. Reagents manufactured with pre-approved standard protocols in a highly controlled environment are critical for ultra sensitive tests and assays like the ones used to detect SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).

The Science of Manufacturing Tools for Scientists

There are several criteria that must be met if you are producing systems that will be sent to different laboratories, used by different people with variable skill sets, yet yield results that can be compared from lab to lab.

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Which Came First: The Virus or the Host?

They existed 3.5 billion years before humans evolved on Earth. They’re neither dead nor alive. Their genetic material is embedded in our own DNA, constituting close to 10% of the human genome. They can attack most forms of life on our planet, from bacteria to plants to animals. And yet, if it wasn’t for them, humans might never have existed.

3D structure of a coronavirus
A depiction of the shape of coronavirus as well as the cross-sectional view. The image shows the major elements including glycoproteins, viral envelope and helical RNA. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

No, that’s not the blurb for a new Hollywood blockbuster, although recent developments have proven, once again, that truth is decidedly more bizarre than fiction. Now that “coronavirus” has become a household word, the level of interest in all things virus-related is growing at an unprecedented rate. At the time of writing, coronavirus and COVID-19 topics dominated search traffic on Google, as well as trends on social media. A recent FAQ on this blog addresses many of the questions we hear on these topics.

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How To Talk To Your Friends And Family About The COVID-19 Pandemic

As scientists, we often find ourselves fielding questions about events in the news that may or may not be related to our area of expertise. Especially during the ongoing pandemic, it can often be difficult to share accurate information without either sparking panic or understating the severity. Nonetheless, we want to support our friends and family in times of uncertainty, and one way to do that is by sharing accurate information about scientific topics.

We’ve gathered answers to a few frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve received from family members. Have question we missed? Submit it in the comments and we’ll get back to you.

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Conferences in the time of COVID-19

Travel and event restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused many scientific conferences to be canceled, delayed or adapted into virtual events. These conferences include the Society of Toxicology (SOT), American Association of Cancer Researchers (AACR), Experimental Biology (EB) and the BioPharmaceutical Emerging Best Practices Association (BEBPA) Bioassay Conference, among many others. For the most up-to-date information, we recommend checking with the hosts of each conference.

These cancellations have disrupted many scientists’ plans to present research, engage with potential collaborators and interact with vendors. At Promega, we’re sensitive to the lost opportunities and are currently exploring potential ways to create these experiences despite so many conferences being canceled.

“We want people to be able to talk directly with us and have the same warm feeling as a close conversation at a conference, but without being face to face,” says Allison Suchon, Promega Tradeshow Manager. “We’re looking at different options to have that same conference feeling but without the show going on around us.”

To make the most of our time while we build solutions, we asked Promega scientists for tips on staying connected and informed when you can’t go to conferences. Here are some ideas we gathered.

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What You Need to Know About Coronaviruses

Here’s a handy infographic to share with friends and family about coronaviruses. You can find even more information about these and other viruses and the tools to study them on our website.

What We Know About the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2

David Goodsell image of SARS-2-CoV
Image by David Goodsell

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is a new virus that emerged in China in late 2019 and quickly jumped into scientific and mainstream news. When facing a potential pandemic, it can be difficult to share information without inducing panic. There’s no doubt that SARS-CoV-2 presents a significant threat to public health, but as with all viruses in their emerging stages, we often find ourselves with more questions than answers. However, through the work of the World Health Organization (WHO), government officials and hardworking scientists worldwide, we can begin to understand some of the details about SARS-CoV-2.

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Rapid Test to Detect SARS-2-CoV Developed in Brazil

The Virology lab at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA), led by Dr. Gúbio Soares, has developed a fast and specific real-time PCR assay using GoTaq 1-Step RT-qPCR for detection of SARS-2-CoV (the coronavirus previously named 2019-nCoV), which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. The Maxwell RSC instrument is used for automated extraction of RNA from oral-pharyngeal secretion collected by swab or bronchial wash prior to the assay. This coronavirus-specific assay can shorten the time to identify SARS-2-CoV from 48 hours to 3 hours (1), providing critical information to public health officials in a timely fashion.

“Promega has been providing all our reagents for standard and real-time PCR and also for nucleic acid extraction. It’s a company I can rely on the relationship; they are our partners and have provided excellent support both technically and financially. Promega is the base of all our assays.” Dr. Gúbio Soares.  

Dr. Soares’ laboratory has experience developing assays to identify and detect emerging viral pathogens. Their laboratory first identified the Zika virus as the etiologic agent in the large outbreaks of acute exanthematous illness (AEI) in northeast Brazil in April 2015 (2). Zika was eventually declared a public health emergency of international importance by the World Health Organization in February 2016, after increased incidence of microcephaly was detected in the infants of women infected during pregnancy. Many of the lessons learned in the management of the Zika crisis are informing how scientists are addressing SARS-2-CoV. The Zika response was characterized by a collaborative spirit to share data, samples and resources among scientific labs across the globe.

Below is a video link from Brazil (audio in Portuguese) describing Dr. Soares’ group work on SARS-2-CoV. https://globoplay.globo.com/v/8302334/

Sources Cited

  1. TV Bahia (2020) Test developed at UFBA can identify coronavirus in 3 hours, says researcher. [Internet: https://g1.globo.com/ba/bahia/noticia/2020/02/07/teste-desenvolvido-na-ufba-pode-identificar-coronavirus-em-3h-diz-pesquisador.ghtml Accessed: February 19, 2020]
  2. Sandler, N. (2016) Zika: Personal Perspectives, Global Responses Promega Corporation. [Internet: https://www.promega.com/Resources/PubHub/Inspiration/Zika%20Perspectives%20Responses/ Accessed : February 19, 2020]

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