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.
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
- The AAALAC International accreditation scheme for animal facilities includes a template for writing a description of the facility's functions. Even if a facility is not considering applying for accreditation, the template can be used as a comprehensive checklist to evaluate all aspects of a facility. Standard operating procedures can then be written to ensure quality in all areas - beginning with the procedures which, after a risk assessment, have been identified as most critical.
- The PREPARE checklist can be used by both facilities and scientists to evaluate and improve the quality of plans for a specific animal study. The 15-topic checklist is supported by webpages (for each of the topics) which provide more information and links to quality resources, such as expert working group reports and scientific papers on the subject.
- Advice on constructing contingency plans for lab animal facilities. A Master Plan to remind staff of events which might otherwise be forgotten should also be part of this process.
- Strengthening the disaster resilience of the academic biomedical research community - a report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
- British laboratory animal specialists have written a checklist specifically for the COVID-19 pandemic. The checklist illustrates very well how general routines at an animal facility can be drawn together to cover specific contingencies.
- The US National Institutes of Health's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) has a useful website about contingency planning, including a comprehensive overview of resources for disaster planning and response. OLAW has also published a list of Frequently Asked Questions, which include information on how institutions and IACUCs best can prepare for a pandemic.
- AALAS has a collection of resources for disaster preparedness, including copies of disaster plans for several university facilities. From this page can be downloaded a Checklist of Disaster Planning expectations in the guides and animal welfare regulations.
- The Association for Biosafety and Security, ABSA International, has produced a Laboratory Acquired Infection (LAI) Database, which can be used to retrieve information on the risks involved when using infectious agents in animal experiments. The database documents episodes which have occurred where workers have been exposed to such agents, and the results of this exposure. The database also includes literature references. ABSA has also produced a related database called the Risk Group Database.
- Safely conducting essential research in the face of COVID-19 (Nature feature article)
- Neff, E.P. (2020): COVID-19 Q&A: A fish facility down to its core. Lab Anim 49, 135–136
- Information and advice about COVID-19 from the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe (FVE), including Ten Tips on Maintaining Mental Health
- Care of staff during challenging and tiring periods is vital. A culture of care at all levels should be actively encouraged by facility managers. As staff return home they should also consider their own well-being (a going-home checklist).
- The Federation of Veterinarians in Europe (FVE) has produced a webpage with facts about coronaviruses and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic
- Possible changes in behavioral phenotyping of rodentsfollowing COVID-19 lockdown
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 Research Animals Department.
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