How seven Indian labs coped with the immediate aftermath of a global health crisis

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Global health crisis

The nationwide lockdown, imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, brought the work of several professionals across the country to a grinding halt, and scientists were no exception. From creating emergency glycerol stocks and shifting meetings online to dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to the pandemic efforts, here is a look at how researchers across India have dealt with this unprecedented situation. 

Our work is completely in vivo, which means we need our mice to do our experiments. All experiments have come to a sudden pause and work is greatly affected. We have frozen samples and mouse lines to make sure we have something to come back to, in case the lockdown prolongs,” said Hiyaa Ghosh, a Principal Investigator at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, when we interviewed her at the beginning of April this year.nbsp;

Ghosh’s experience is not an isolated one. In the early days of the lockdown, we got in touch with seven researchers across India and enquired about the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their research activities. This article attempts to provide a glimpse into how these research groups, spanning across multiple disciplines, have coped with this global health crisis over the past few months.

The first steps ​‘to put a brake on the outbreak’

Hiyaa Ghosh’s research group investigates the underlying cell biology of multiple processes in the adult brain. When benchwork came to an abrupt halt, her lab members turned their attention towards writing theses and analysing data. Quite a few of their ongoing projects were affected. Ghosh says, ​“Some of these are long drawn experiments, which will take weeks and months to recover once the lockdown gets over. I am sure that this is the case for many wet-laboratories across the nation and the world. But, we all have to do what is needed for the moment, which is to put a brake on the outbreak before it gets bigger in India.”

At the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology (Savitribai Phule Pune University), Karishma Kaushik’s lab conducts research in the area of human-relevant infection biology. A complete ​‘wet lab’, all experiments stopped. Snehal Kadam, a research assistant in Kaushik’s group, talks about the steps that were immediately taken by the lab members. ​“We anticipated the probability of the lockdown a couple of days in advance, given that in Pune, cases were on the rise. I made stocks of the cell lines that we were working with. We were able to make stocks of the standard laboratory strains of bacteria and store them at ‑80°C.”

Geetanjali Sundaram’s lab at the University of Calcutta stopped operations on March 19, 2020. Her lab studies the regulation of the cell cycle and molecular machinery involved, using yeast as a model system. Yeast presents a relatively stress-free maintenance situation, owing to the ease with which it can be stored frozen in vials containing glycerol. While the maintenance of the lab organism was taken care of, Sundaram drew our attention to a different cohort of problems that her group was struggling with. When interviewed towards the end of March, she said, ​“The outbreak has badly affected not just the academic aspects of research but the logistics also. Scheduled ordering has stopped.”

With the supply of new resources hampered, the resources which were utilised in then on-going experiments also went down the drain — an unfortunate consequence of halting all benchwork midway. Sundaram continues, ​“Regular maintenance of all instrumental facilities has been affected as well. So, after the lockdown is over, there would be a second gestation period for bringing everything back on track, in order to make things run as smoothly as before. More importantly, this badly affects the morale of the research scholars in the lab.”

However, even in such challenging times, she is trying to stay upbeat, ​“On the brighter side, we can dedicate more time to manuscript writing, analysis of data from high throughput experiments, brainstorming sessions, journal clubs etc.” Her lab has been conducting meetings via online platforms such as teamlink. She points out how the interactions between her lab members have increased and such conversations have contributed to bringing them closer to each other.

While the ‑80° C freezer has thrown a lifebuoy at some labs, the fruit-fly (Drosophila) folks have found no such friend. Manish Jaiswal’s lab at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Hyderabad is exploring the genetic and cell biological factors that play a role in maintaining healthy mitochondria in neurons. Their model of choice is the versatile Drosophila. When the lab operations were about to cease, his group members shifted all Drosophila strains to a temperature of 18° C, seven degrees lower than normal. This would slow down the growth of the fly strains, giving a buffer time of a week after which the flies would need to be shifted to a new vial. During the first phase of the lockdown, Jaiswal and his colleague, Deepa Balasubramanian, visited the fly facility twice a week for maintaining the strains.

While biology researchers were feeling the heat, their colleagues in experimental chemistry found themselves in a similar fix. Pranav Shirhatti’s lab specialises in the field of surface chemistry and is located in TIFR Hyderabad. He points out, ​“We are a relatively new lab and are still in the phase where many of the experimental set-ups are being built, optimized and tested. For most of the ongoing projects, we have a few results which are being analysed. Besides this, we are also concentrating our efforts on laying out plans for future experiments. It is expected that several pieces of equipment and other components, which are to be shipped from different countries, will be delayed. We will have to factor this in our plans for the future.”

On the other hand, theoreticians and computational scientists have heavily relied on virtual meetings to maintain an uninterrupted exchange of ideas and feedback. P. Ajith, who is an astrophysicist at International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), Bangalore shifted all discussions online, ​“All the group meetings, journal clubs and discussions are happening through video conferencing. We have asked the group members to stay home. Even those of us who are staying on campus have been asked not to come to their offices.” He adds, ​“We should be able to continue without major disruptions, assuming that the computational facilities are up and running and our internet connections work.” With impeded access to powerful computational facilities, a physicist in a national radio astronomy research institute, who asked to remain anonymous, relays how the research had indeed hit a speed bump, ​“All projects that require data reduction with fast computers have come to a standstill. We are focusing on reading and writing right now. Data reduction and analysis is an integral part of my research.”

Drafting plans and stepping up to the crisis

Despite the initial setbacks, researchers across various disciplines have reorganised their efforts in contributing to the fight against the pandemic, either in the form of research activities, outreach, or increasing the COVID-19 testing capabilities.

Karishma Kaushik has been engaged in disseminating information about COVID-19 to a younger audience through a series of webinars, including answering almost a hundred questions from the children who attended the sessions. In addition to conducting webinars and writing articles, Kaushik has also been working towards developing a handbook on guidelines for COVID testing. This work is being done in collaboration with a team of other young scientists and the Principal Scientific Adviser’s office.

Manish Jaiswal has started working towards developing alternative assays for detecting COVID-19 that are cheaper than current RNA based testing methods. Jaiswal’s group has also been coordinating the training of a cohort of TIFRH members who can aid in ramping up the COVID-19 testing capability in the state of Telangana. Pranav Shirhatti is a part of a team which is working on building a cost-effective open-source real-time quantitative PCR machine. This development can potentially contribute towards large-scale COVID-19 testing.

Meanwhile, P. Ajith has been brainstorming with his colleagues at ICTS-TIFR to deter the spread of an ​‘infodemic’ during this pandemic. He became involved in creating the first of several engaging infographics for COVID Gyan, which is an online platform dedicated to providing accurate information about COVID-19. Ajith has also been helping with setting up the COVID Gyan website.

These scientists have found themselves in a fight against a virus that has spread its tentacles across all continents. With scientists all over the world rising to the challenge posed by COVID-19, in whatever form possible, this stands as a testimony to the exemplary resilience of the research community.

 

Anusheela is Program Head of the Science Media Center at TIFR, Hyderabad