Returning to the Lab After COVID-19

April 2020
RJ Panzo

At some point, states will slowly allow businesses to re-open, so how should Biotech and Life Science companies prepare the labs for when their workers’ return?  What will be the “new norm” for labs post COVID-19?

It will be very important to gradually return to normalcy instead of rushing back into the lab all at once, causing a potential resurgence of the viral spread. Continuing to “flatten the curve” will be crucial, but knowing today’s labs are busy environments with workers sharing equipment and bench spaces that are near routinely used instruments and high traffic areas, it may be challenging. Labs will need to adjust how they are managed with increased vigilance and reinforced guidelines on cleaning and distancing—at least for the next 6 months.

Lab Cleaning

Generally, labs are some of the cleanest environments you’ll encounter. They should already have guidelines to protect workers and minimize contaminations. Post COVID-19, labs will need to put extra measures in place to ensure a clean and appropriate environment once their workers return to the lab. This means reevaluating current guidelines of cleaning, PPE use, and handwashing.

Before returning to work, lab managers should identify high-touch locations and equipment specific to each lab. Locations and equipment with a high frequency of handling and contact represent a higher probability of viral loading in the work area and should be disinfected on a routine basis. This includes:

  • Benchtops
  • Equipment handles and latches
  • Equipment controls and touchpads
  • Drawer and cabinet handles
  • Bin and water incubator lids
  • Hand tools
  • Micro-pipettors and other shared tools
  • Faucet handles and sprayer grips
  • Baskets, bins, trays, etc.
  • Exteriors of shared chemical bottles and caps
  • Chair backs and armrests
  • Pens, whiteboard markers, etc.

For routine cleaning, ensure lab workers have access to a disinfectant that is certified by the EPA to be effective against the COVID-19 coronavirus. There are two easy ways to identify this:

  1. Verify the disinfectant is on the EPA’s List N registry of disinfectants. Disinfectants are listed both by name and by EPA ID number. Your current product may not be listed by name, but check to see if the EPA number matches what’s on the list. If the number matches, then it’s ok to use.
  2. The fine print of the label will list Coronavirus among the organisms for which it is approved.

There are also a number of guidelines that labs should be aware of when performing their initial and routine cleaning schedules:

  • 10% bleach in water is an approved disinfectant, as is QuatStat 5 from Betco.
  • Although 70% ethanol is not recommended for all surfaces, it may be appropriate for electronics and other delicate surfaces.
  • Not all products with the name “Lysol” or “Clorox” are necessarily effective against Coronavirus.
  • Never mix cleaning chemicals together, especially with bleach.

Lab managers and workers will also need to pay attention to disinfectant contact time. Almost all disinfectants require a certain amount of time to work. A quick “spray and wipe” is usually insufficient. Users should spray until the surface is thoroughly wet, wait 5-10 minutes, then wipe. This is how most disinfectants work, even for bleach. Contact times can be found on the instruction label of the disinfectant or can be found online on the manufacturer’s website. All users should assume that all disinfectants do not work on contact, and give themselves extra time to ensure a proper clean.

Certain equipment and lab instruments can be damaged by the use of stronger disinfectants, like bleach—particularly PCs, PC accessories, key-style equipment touchpads, on/off switches, and sensitive instrumentation.  An approved quaternary-ammonium disinfectant or 70% ethanol wipes, would be more suitable for these more delicate tasks. As an alternative to disinfectant wipes, these items can be disinfected by soaking a dry wipe in the alcohol or disinfectant until it is soaked (not dripping), then using it to wipe the object. Users should be careful to avoid getting liquid into any openings. Surfaces should be visibly wet after you wipe it, and the disinfectant should be left to evaporate from the surface.

Lab workers should already be wearing appropriate PPE based on their type of laboratory work. Gloves, lab coats, and lab goggles are usually normal lab attire and are also suitable when cleaning. Labs may want to start enforcing the use of disposable masks as well, at least for the next 3-6 months. Some labs provide fabric lab coats that are usually washed once/week, but it may be a good idea to change to single-use, disposable coats for the time being. The same goes for lab goggles unless they are cleaned routinely at the end of the day

Lastly, managers need to be extra vigilant with supplies that are coming into the lab. Without knowing where these items originated or who has handled them, it is best practice to disinfect everything that is received. This would include:

  • Lab consumables/inventory
  • Gas dewars
  • New equipment
  • Reagents
  • Samples

Appropriate Distancing in the Lab 

In the past month, social distancing has really helped curb the spread of COVID-19. As workers return to the lab, it will be essential that companies reinforce some guidelines that allow some amount of distancing. This new norm will continue to “flatten the curve”, and prevent any resurgence of a viral spread in the near future. Here are some distancing guidelines that companies can apply to their labs:

Identify lab tasks and activities that can be performed with reduced face-to-face interactions:

  • Limit the number of lab meetings that are occurring and, when possible, use remote collaboration tools (i.e. video and phone conferencing tools)—even for those onsite in the same office/building.
  • Convert routine and other meetings to phone calls or video meetings.
  • Encourage employees to use phones and email to ask each other routine questions or obtain service versus walking around the lab in person.
  • Consider canceling training and other activities that are not necessary for short term operational continuity to avoid bringing employees together.
  • Avoid scheduling lunch meetings, meetings over coffee, etc. Schedule phone calls or video meetings instead.

Decrease the density in smaller support labs or shared labs, so that people are given adequate spacing. Ask your workers:

  • Can these rooms be scheduled for use?
  • Can experiments be scheduled to achieve less density at one time in a specific room?

When thinking about lab equipment, think about:

  • Staggering work schedules and assignments on shared equipment. Can one employee use the equipment in the morning and another use it in the afternoon?
  • Disinfecting shared-use equipment that is touched by multiple people
  • Minimize outsider and vendor representative visits. Only allow 3rd party lab services (waste pick-up, equipment servicers, etc.) to enter the lab and ensure they are following the same employee guidelines for PPE and disinfecting their own supplies/tools being brought into the lab
  • Limit business and conference travel over the next 6 months
  • Explore and plan for flexible work arrangements
  • Remind and encourage employees to stay home if they are sick

We’re not out of the woods yet—but by reflecting some of the things that we have learned to help decrease the spread of COVID-19, Biotech and Life Science companies should plan to reevaluate their current lab procedures. Interested in learning more? Send me a note at RJ@t3advisors.com