COVID-19 Response Guide for University Researchers and Research Groups

Update: March 18, 10:00 p.m.

Posted: March 18, 5:00 p.m.

As more measures are taken to combat the spread of COVID-19, it is increasingly likely that one or more levels of government will direct a shutdown of all non-essential work as part of a declaration of a state of emergency. As we know, a state of health emergency has already been declared in Alberta. This will have direct effects on our research, scholarly and creative activity. 

Be prepared for the possibility that core facilities, fee-for-service, and other research resources may become unavailable, as well as supply chain delays (including Personal Protective Equipment shortages) and vendor service delays.   

Although there are currently no plans to close the university, this could change with little or no notice. The development of individual COVID-19 cases could lead to closure of university buildings with virtually no notice. Therefore, ensure your area is prepared for the possibility of a closure at the end of each day.

The following information is provided by the Crisis Management Team, in consultation with the Office of the Vice-President (Research and Innovation), the Research Services Office, the Research Ethics Office, and the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research.

University research directives
  • Researchers are directed to ramp down and conclude all non-essential research that requires institutional resources (e.g. infrastructure, power, cooling, water, etc.) and support. Continuation of research (e.g. clinical studies that cannot be stopped without jeopardizing patient safety and animal use research) will require approval from the PI’s Dean. 
    • ALL on-campus research work that continues past Friday, March 20, 2020 must be registered with Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) through the Registration of Research Form. Registration will enable us to ensure those buildings with ongoing research receive priority maintenance should staffing levels in our maintenance teams become a challenge.
    • Deans and/or Vice-Deans of Research in consultation with the appropriate chair, will determine which campus-based research activities are deemed essential and communicate this to the Crisis Management Team.
    • If work is deemed essential, plans must be in place to support its continuation. Labs should assess the availability of, and as appropriate secure, critical materials such as PPE, chemicals, gases and labware. Cross-training for critical activities and development of standard operating procedures is required in the event that a researcher or group of researchers cannot attend the site, particularly if remote alarms require investigation. 
  • New research projects that require institutional resources (e.g. infrastructure, power, cooling, water, etc.) and support cannot be started until further notice unless they are deemed essential research, e.g. related to COVID-19 or involving animal care and maintenance of breeding colonies, and then only with appropriate ethics, biosafety and operational approval.
  • Individual research, scholarly and creative activities that rely on virtual interaction or do not require institutional resources (e.g. infrastructure, power, cooling, water, etc.) and support may continue or be initiated at the discretion of individual researchers, again subject to appropriate approvals. 
  • Research hosted by other institutions/bodies will fall to that host for a decision about continuation.

Other research work that cannot be easily interrupted and must continue, at least in the early stages of a shutdown, includes:

  • Cell culture work that has already started and cannot be postponed.
  • Microbial culture work that must be completed before cultures can be frozen or stored.
  • Stabilization/neutralization of intermediates produced in chemical synthesis experiments.
  • Completion of animal experiments that have a specific end-date in the near future.  Specific guidance will be provided by the Directors of the animal services units in consultation with the University Veterinarian. 
General guidance

Ensure all data and files are accessible from your home computer systems so you can work from home. Please ensure all privacy regulations are respected.

If your unit administers resources that researchers, including trainees, may need to access in order to complete their studies, give thought to how remote access could be arranged (for example, to datasets).

If you have a university laptop, take it and its power supply home at the end of each working day.

Consider whether there are specific applications that you would need to install on your personal computer in order to work from home, and arrange to get them installed.

The university is providing many IT options for accessing shared drives from home or even remote log-in to desktop machines.  However, these tools may require set-up in advance.

Research leaders should ensure that they have up-to-date contact information including personal mobile telephone numbers for all staff.

Research leaders should consider opportunities to mitigate the impact of illness or self-isolation, such as sharing staff between units.

Social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 must be implemented following Alberta Health Services (AHS) Guidelines.

For non-clinical research involving human participants, consider if research protocols can be modified or delayed to limit unnecessary personal contacts. Specifically, for some research activities, in-person participant interactions should be reduced and/or replaced with telephone or online communication. Postpone any in-person study visits, focus groups, interviews, etc. and where possible conduct these in an on-line/virtual format. Learn more »

On-site research groups should ensure critical staff work alternate days to reduce the likelihood of the spread of illness. Consider partnering with an associate lab to help accomplish this.

Wet labs

At this time we are directing all areas to plan for a shutdown of non-essential wet lab research that involves unavoidable social interaction, is conducted in a close team setting or requires significant institutional support. We understand  some labs are in the process of closing down and we want to ensure they have up-to-date information. Identify procedures, processes and equipment that require ongoing personnel attention (e.g. glove boxes, heating/cooling systems, supplies of liquid nitrogen/helium, compressed gases, etc.)

Be prepared for building/lab/workshop access to be reduced or removed. 

Be prepared for scenarios where access may only be allowed for key personnel to enable safe shutdown of experiments OR essential maintenance to critical equipment that could otherwise lead to increased risk of an incident.

Review/prepare lab procedures for long-term shutdown of experiments that cannot be left unattended. Ensure protocols can be initiated and completed quickly should they be required.

Identify and train key personnel to perform safe shutdown and essential equipment maintenance.

If you do not have experiments planned, work from home to support social distancing.

If you are working on campus, keep a 2-meter separation between active work areas.

Increase the frequency of disinfection of research areas including work surfaces, benches, chairs, common equipment/ areas – especially if you are notified of personnel who become ill. 

Prioritize critical activities.

Identify activities that can be ramped down, curtailed, or delayed.

Label, secure and store hazardous materials so hazards are removed/controlled for other personnel who may need to enter at short notice.

Cross-train personnel or coordinate with colleagues doing similar activities to provide support.

Community research and research involving human participants

Due to emergency preparedness and preventative measures in response to COVID-19, the university’s Research Ethics Boards (REBs) advise investigators to:

  • Consider if research studies can be modified or delayed.
  • Limit personal contacts, lab visits or clinic and hospital trips.
  • Consider reducing in-person participant interactions or replace them with phone or online communication.
  • Revise participant consent forms or consent addendums as required (e.g., to update privacy considerations with use of different communication channels).
  • Always disinfect according to manufacturer’s standards or work with single-use accessories as possible for physical assessments and equipment (e.g., metabolic carts, facemasks, mouthpieces, nose-clips, straps, turbines, valves, tubing, cannula, treadmills, etc.).

While the Research Ethics Boards typically review and approve modifications before implementation, an exception can be made where the change is necessary to eliminate an immediate risk to participant(s) (TCPS2 Article 6.15). Such changes may be implemented but must be reported to the Research Ethics Board at the earliest opportunity (within 5 business days as a guide). The Research Ethics Boards will work to expedite these requests to minimize research disruption.

All research plans must be re-assessed against current university, Alberta Health Services, provincial and federal health advisories and travel restrictions.

Clinical research

In addition to university regulations, it is essential to adhere to the directives, policies, procedures and advice of relevant partner or collaborating organizations (e.g. Alberta Health Services (AHS), Covenant Health etc), including infection prevention and control practices and workplace health and safety rules.

  • Refer to AHS guidance as a priority because facility access could change rapidly.

Active Studies

Limit personal contacts, lab visits or clinic and hospital trips.

Minimize or avoid in-person interactions, consider which study visits could be cancelled, delayed or held virtually. 

Minimize the operational impacts and/or requests for research-related assistance from care teams working hard to manage their clinical workloads.

If not already doing so, screen participants who require in-person visits for COVID-19 risk factors before those visits.

Consider if revised participant consent or consent addendums, or protocol deviations related are required (e.g. to update privacy considerations with use of different communication channels), and report to the appropriate Research Ethics Board.

The Health Research Ethics Board may require notification of protocol changes  as a result of efforts to reduce person-to-person contact.

Maintain Investigators’ duty to provide care and ensure access to study drugs for participants already enrolled in clinical trials.

If you anticipate the need for ongoing study visits to administer study drugs or facilitate study assessments, consider alternating attendance of your study staff at study visits to maximize contingencies around possible infection or exposure.

If study staff are exposed to a patient, study monitor, or employee who is later found to have been infected with or exposed to COVID-19, the study staff member must self-isolate for 14 days.

Investigators are encouraged to work with study sponsors of industry-sponsored clinical trials to confirm their expectations and implement any changes. This includes how protocol violations should be handled and any special reporting requirements.

Research involving animals

Due to COVID-19, the university’s Animal Care and Use Committees (ACUC) advise investigators to:

  • consider if work involving animals can be modified, delayed or postponed; and,
  • assess plans to provide animal care if research team members become ill or staff are advised to stay home.

Campus animal services units have operational emergency continuity plans, including animal care and use, procurement, and oversight of alternate animal housing locations. Senior staff from the Animal Care and Use Program are discussing operational continuity in the event the university has to modify day-to-day operations.

Detailed information is in available in ARISE. Please log in to view. Researchers whose work involves animals received an email directing them to this resource.

Review procedures are all online and the ACUCs will continue to operate normally, subject to reviewer and staff availability. The Research Ethics Office will be hosting online ACUC meetings. 

The ACUCs typically review and approve modifications to approved animal work before they are implemented. If you have questions or concerns about exceptional circumstances, please contact:

Dry labs and other forms of research

Much of our research and creative activity does not involve wet lab or extensive social interaction. It is conducted in an office, or in an off-campus setting for example.  As such, these individual scholarly activities could continue at the discretion of individual researchers, who will provide guidance to their trainees and research staff.

Computational-based research conducted on Compute Canada resources can continue. IST Research Computing staff are working remotely and providing researcher support, supporting Compute Canada services, and Compute Canada systems administration. Technical support and documentation is available.    

If your unit administers resources that researchers, including trainees, may need to access in order to complete their studies, give thought to how remote access could be arranged (for example, to datasets).

Shutting down non-essential research activities

Labs that shut down active research must complete the following: 

  • Safe shutdown and securing of non-essential equipment. Consider isolating equipment that won’t be in use by shutting off power, turning off gas cylinders, shutting off water supply, etc.
  • Ensure contact information is up-to-date in the ARISE system. Primary and secondary contacts should have a good working knowledge of the space and hazards
  • If equipment has an alarm system that activates within the Unified Communication Centre, ensure proper contact information is in place
  • Hazardous material inventories must be up-to-date and readily available, and hazardous materials should be properly stored 
  • Fume hoods should be emptied as much as possible and sashes closed 

While shutting down operations, continue to practice social distancing, disinfecting surfaces as appropriate, and good hand hygiene.

Research area inspection/maintenance

It may be necessary to monitor lab equipment and supplies during a shutdown.  Research groups should develop an inspection schedule as appropriate, inform respective Deans and register that schedule with EHS through Inspection/Maintenance During Ramp down. Items to consider include:

  • Equipment maintenance (NMR, MRI and other equipment requiring regular cryogen refills)
  • Supply of gases (CO2/nitrogen/argon etc.) to incubators, glove boxes and similar types of equipment
  • Freezer and fridge operations to ensure equipment is operating, and conduct periodic inspections afterwards
  • Emission management
  • Working conditions of alarms in storage areas with hazardous materials
  • Periodic checks of facilities and equipment with restricted access

If you have any questions if a research activity should be stopped or continued, please contact your chair or dean.

If you have safety concerns or questions about your research activities stopping or continuing, contact EHS at ehslab@ualberta.ca with a description of your activities and location.


Resources