The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically illustrated the key role which contingency plans and collaboration at all levels should play in biomedical research. This page contains some general advice about experimental design and contingency, as well as links to resources relevant to the situation arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Design of robust animal experiments
Unfortunately, many people seem to equate robust experimental design largely with the more "mathematical issues" such as randomisation, power and statistical analyses. Responsible design and preparations for reproducible animal studies extend way beyond this, and involve far more people.

If extensive literature surveys indicate that an in vivo study is required, scientists should, as soon as possible, contact the animal facility where they hope to conduct the study. Collaboration between scientists and facility staff must include discussions about all stages of the study, up to and including depopulation, decontamination and waste disposal afterwards. This is explained in the PREPARE guidelines for planning animal research and testing. An essential part of this process, highlighted by media coverage of those treating COVID-19 patients, is attention to facility staff. This includes, among other things, their education and training, personal protection, their workload, and means of ensuring adequate staffing levels at all times.

Contingency plans

A competent animal facility "hopes for the best but is prepared for the worst". Facilities with comprehensive and realistic contingency plans will be well placed to tackle disasters, including lockdown situations in connection with a pandemic. There are many resources available that describe the principles involved, but these must be tailored to the local conditions at each facility. Building a contingency plan from scratch is a time-consuming affair, but it is an excellent insurance policy for the day when a threatening situation arises. Those lacking such a plan should begin with a risk assessment of the facility and its activities, and start by writing contingency plans for the most important of these scenarios:

Risk assessment = the consequence of the threat x the likelihood of it occurring + the tolerance of the event occurring

Assessments may have to be performed at several levels:

  • facility level (e.g. the consequences of flooding or fire)
  • room level (e.g. the consequences of power outages to vital equipment)
  • the specific type of research (e.g. risk of human infection)

It is wise to construct a contingency plan based upon the assumption that 'what can go wrong will go wrong at some time' (Murphy's Law), and that this will happen when it is least convenient, for example during public holidays (Sod's Law). Doing this is no more pessimistic or neurotic than buying fire insurance for a house, which hopefully will never be needed but which can prove to be essential if the situation arises (fires in the UK alone occur 37,000 times annually, with a loss of 200 lives).

Clearly, both the design of animal studies and the production of contingency plans must involve close collaboration between management, scientists and technical staff, including external suppliers of equipment and services.

Resources about contingency plans

Resources of relevance to the COVID-19 pandemic and other infections:

Other online resources about emotional resilience

Links to home learning resources for schoolchildren and students

The ethics of the use of animals to tackle the pandemic and the lessons which may be learned from this are the subject of an opinion piece written by Penny Hawkins, Head of the RSPCA's Animals in Science Department.

This page was updated on 24 June 2021

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