Scientists around the world are joining together to study the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 and to expedite the development of possible vaccines and treatments to prevent its infection, named COVID-19. At Berkeley Lab, senior leadership and Operations staff are evaluating ways in which our unique capabilities can contribute to this global effort while ensuring the health and safety of our staff and community, and some related research is underway.
“Many in the Lab community are eager to contribute; this is what makes the Lab such a great place to work,” said Lab Director Mike Witherell. “Our goal is to identify areas in which we can use our unique resources to make the greatest impact on time-sensitive COVID-19 research. We are being careful to take on critical research we can do within the constraints imposed by the status of our site.”
In addition, the Lab is part of a DOE-wide COVID-19 working group, which is identifying ways to leverage the capabilities of the national labs.
Currently, the only research-related projects underway at the Lab’s main site and offsite locations are those defined as “critical work.” This includes work that ensures the long-term integrity of equipment and samples. In addition, some unique capabilities and facilities at the Lab are being called into action quickly to assist in the national COVID-19 response.
The Advanced Light Source (ALS) and Molecular Foundry are conducting approved essential research with users that may help in developing therapeutics to combat COVID-19. This week, the ALS will begin operating a limited number of beamlines for three days a week to accommodate several academic and industry user groups pursuing structural biology work on non-infectious protein components of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
A Stanford-based user group is working with Molecular Foundry staff to synthesize polymers known as peptoids that have shown promise as antiviral agents against COVID-19. These limited activities are the only on-site staff or user research authorized at the ALS and Molecular Foundry at this time.
NERSC and ESnet — which can be accessed remotely — have remained operational because of their roles in supporting the computing and data science research at all the DOE laboratories. NERSC is contributing resources to the COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium, and ESnet is the network for the consortium. NERSC has set up dedicated queues running COVID-19-related research projects on Cori, a Cray XC40 supercomputer able to perform nearly 30 quadrillion calculations per second. Go here to read an article with more details on this effort.
The Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU) will be operating on a limited basis to temporarily support a company in scaling up a coronavirus antiviral — work that was begun prior to the Lab stand down.
Experts in high-throughput automation from the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) have been bringing their expertise to a broad effort at UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute to develop a robotic testing lab.
No COVID-related research at the Lab uses the live virus.
Go here for more detailed FAQs on the status of Berkeley Lab’s user facilities.
Have Coronavirus Research Ideas?
Under the current state-wide shelter-in-place order, and as long as the Lab is in a “safe and stable standby” mode, additional studies or research that are not time-critical will not be performed, even if a principal investigator deems it “low risk.” The Lab’s minimal operations level requires the Lab to limit on-site research to critical work as approved by Area and senior Lab leadership.
Employees who have ideas for SARS-CoV-2- or COVID-19-related research, or who are approached by collaborators for help, should discuss the idea with their line management. Approval from their line management, Division Director, ALD, and Lab Director is required before proceeding.
Several COVID-19 research projects can be supported as redirections of existing projects, while others are taking advantage of the Lab’s user facilities in the same way other user-proposed projects do. There is not an existing funding source for Lab scientists to initiate new COVID-19 projects that do not fit these two categories. Although federal legislation enacted over the weekend does provide the DOE Office of Science $99.5 million for COVID-19 related research, it is unclear how these dollars will be allocated by the Department.
The Lab is currently evaluating possibilities for donating consumable supplies, such as reagents and pipettes, that could be used by other groups and institutions performing COVID-19 testing and vaccine development. This is part of a national movement to redirect research supplies to the immediate needs of the campaign against COVID-19.
At this time, based on UC and DOE guidance, the Lab is not in a position to donate any PPE to organizations running short of this equipment. It is necessary to have enough stock on hand to ensure that all employees who are required to come on-site have the PPE they need to perform their work safely. In addition, these supplies may be needed on short notice within the UC System, or within the national lab system, to sustain certain clinical or national security work, for example.
If you would like to donate supplies, or have received an external request for supplies and are interested in helping, please send the request to the CIMG (CIMG@lbl.gov) for tracking and evaluation.
When planning any work at any Lab site, line managers must ensure that protective measures and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) requirements are followed. We continue to apply the highest standards for protecting our employees. Line management should work with their EH&S liaison prior to initiating work (which must have already been approved by Division Directors and ALDs), as well as notify Facilities and Human Resources.
Additionally, line managers and user facility managers must inform the Emergency Director in the Lab’s Emergency Operations Center about work planned for each day so that the number of people on Lab sites can be monitored. Staff should obtain their supervisor’s approval to go on site. Contact your EH&S liaison with questions.