How this global workforce contracted by multiple labs kept vivariums running smoothly.
Back in early spring, as the world was shutting down and millions of people began working from home full-time, the scientists and technicians that we dispatch to vivariums and laboratories faced a different kind of challenge. They were spending their days, nights and weekends caring for the animals that are pivotal in moving drug candidates forward.
What sacrifices were required of these essential workers to do their job and what lessons have we learned and are still learning that will help us prepare for the next emergency?
Charles River’s Insourcing Solutions division, which places workers in pharma, biotech, academic and government labs, has more than 90 contracts globally, from the US to China. Of the 1,250 workers we have in the field, 75% are assigned to laboratories and therefore considered essential. This includes our Charles River Accelerator and Development Labs (CRADL) in South San Francisco and Cambridge, MA, which provide vivarium rental space to startups and mid-techs who rely on us house their animals and provide an environment for their studies. Our CRADL team do everything from entry level animal husbandry and animal care, to study and technical support, project management, veterinary science and bench science.
Charles River got into the Insourcing business nearly two decades ago to help out a single client who needed a lab tech. Out of that evolved a portfolio that now exceeds 7% of Charles River’s international workforce.
We have dispatched workers to natural disasters, deployed a team to cover an animal research facility when their workers went out on strike to ensure continuous animal care, and offered lab support to BSL-2 and BSL-3 labs.This may have prepared us better than many for a crisis, though the global pandemic that disrupted businesses around the world and left billions sheltering in place was unprecedented.
Though the first cases of COVID-19 began surfacing in late December in China, it wasn’t until late February that it hit me—we were headed for a global catastrophe. Thousands of miles away in what was then the worst hit region, northern Italy was grappling with overflowing ICUs and rising death counts and infections and I had many insourcing colleagues there. Many experts were predicting, accurately as it turned out, that the remainder of Europe and North America would soon follow this pattern. It was clear to me that we and our clients—most of whom are located in North America and Europe were in for a once-in-a-generation challenge, and that without careful planning our animals could be in peril.
Insourcing Solutions is a customer space that can’t stop. None of our contracts with government, commercial or academic labs shuttered during the pandemic. Our workers were essential from the start.
To meet this challenge, work practices needed dramatic revisions to allow for proper social distancing and reduced risks, with fewer workers occupying lab space, in staggered shifts, so work could be completed on time. For our academic and government clients—large contractors that have more than 100 people on site—employees were able to work split shifts. They worked one week from home, and one week on site. These creative schedules generated by our management teams helped us to continue to support the research and keep our workers safe. Through all this, research was accelerating, sparked by a tremendous push to find drugs and vaccines for COVID-19.
For smaller customers supporting 10 or fewer full-time employees on the ground, we had to be even more creative because split shifts weren’t practical. In those instances, we instituted proper social distancing to allow employees to work together in the same space.
However even getting to those shifts would be a major challenge, as many of our locations are in large cities reliant on mass transit which the team now needed to avoid. Childcare was also a constant concern after schools and day care centers closed and many were just deeply anxious about encountering the virus; however, I am proud to say almost 100% of my colleagues attended their workplaces when healthy, recognizing the critical importance of the work they support.
Keeping up morale was mission critical, especially for those workers who found themselves in the difficult position shuttering experiments at an alarming pace
With so many challenges facing us, preparation was key. In the very early days, our management teams met regularly to strategize and troubleshoot aided by comprehensive Business Continuity guides prepared. Until the end June they were meeting every day.
Throughout this ordeal, we pushed very hard for people to communicate and collaborate with customers. We also kept sites connected with regular Zoom calls. With so little physical interaction, these conversations made a difference in keeping people informed and connected, whether it was to share a funny story about their pets or shop talk about how their research animals are doing.
Looking ahead, it is clear that contingency planning is key. One large pharma executive told me, frankly, that they were ill-prepared for the pandemic. If our health care sectors aren’t able to react, how can we expect the general public to adjust?
Of course, as we read this this global emergency is not yet over; as we see more facilities reopen its clear that we may yet see COVID-19 restrictions reinstated. As a result, we are seeing some shuttered vivariums shifting the care of their animals or cell lines to outside contractors who have the infrastructure to help manage this uncertainty.
There is immediate expense is when your colonies or research are disrupted by a pandemic; however, the long-term cost of delay to development of life enhancing therapies could ultimately be far greater.
At the end of the day, we were and are in this together. The success of our Insourcing Solutions team has been due to a strong corporate foundation and leadership. The success we will see as a research community is dependent on information sharing, transparent communications and shared best practices.