Category Archives: Datesand In The Press

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The ‘New Normal’

As UK lockdown has come to an end, more and more industries are expected to start getting back to a level of normality, but what is the ‘new normal’ for the LAS sector in the UK?

On 28th July, we tuned in to ‘What is the New Normal for Animal Research Facilities in the Next Decade?’ with Steven Cubitt, Managing Director at CC Tech, a specialist provider supporting the design, development & operation of biomedical, biocontainment and cleanroom environments for leading scientific research and healthcare institutions.

As a member of the IAT Council and the Chair of the Board of Educational Policy, Steven took some time to discuss with fellow industry professionals what was to be expected, potentially over the next decade, for facilities across the UK and perhaps beyond.

For those who had strong contingency and continuity plans in place pre-COVID-19 with human and animal welfare at the heart of their plans, though still difficult, a return to some form of normality should come easier.

Greatly summed up, there is a ‘formula’ for the greatest potential for success, but of course, this will take time…

Making Changes

An obvious and initially effective change most facilities will need to make is significantly reducing stock levels. By maintaining a more efficient level of stock to the necessities while still meeting to regulation expectations, facilities should save some costs immediately. Steven did mention that however; this would not be the case for all facilities, those that have remained fully operational throughout this period or worked at a reduced capacity have simply changed practices to keep costs down and maintain welfare.

That is why Steven also believes that a change in institutional policies will be fundamental in terms of getting back to an efficient way of working. There are ways to adapt to change to simplify the process of getting back to work.

Ventilation, though offering large operating costs and environmental impacts, can be used to a new capacity with great potential to invite more innovative technology and improve air quality within facilities – something that will be key in providing a healthier and safer working environment.

While refurbishments may be needed for many, Steven explains how important it is to aim for long-term use by investing in time and using existing performance data to make informed decisions about adaptations. In terms of preparing for this, setting a strategy to measure against expectations is exactly what funders want to see. Offering gains and planning with a green agenda is exactly what will push a facility to achieve funding.

But all this investment in new practices ultimately creates a host of opportunities for a more efficient way of working.

“I think this is a great opportunity to change how our facilities work”, Steven explains. “We need to learn the lessons from the previous four months and see how we can approach things going forward”.

And this is where the power of automation comes in. With all the fantastic technology we have on offer today, there is great opportunity to replace once time consuming man power jobs with reliable automated technology. By once again investing in these kinds of opportunities, both human and animal needs can be met while maintaining safety, productivity and a high level of animal welfare.

Challenges:

In this return to ‘normal’ a focus for all industries across the UK is creating a Green Recovery in response to impacts of COVID-19 and animal facilities are no different. However, of all the facilities, animal facilities are absolutely one of the least green.

According to Steven, as an industry, we are “probably the least green we have ever been”. He explains how “the need for more disposables and people looking at additional filtration has a big demand on energy”. On top of this, the demand for large facilities with high levels of stock, cost of staff and energy use create some of the biggest costs.

Steven also believes that it’s hard to imagine carbon neutral facility, however he does suggest that “cutting energy by 30-40% is achievable, but it’s not straight forward and has a number of challenges”.

Another struggle that may affect a large portion of the industry is the ability to win funding and grants for researchers. Of course, many facilities have still been able to carry out research, especially for the coronavirus – and they have been greatly supported – but other and perhaps smaller projects may not get the support they need, especially if the changes aren’t made within a facility to make it a more workable environment.

With the amount of time it is likely to take, Steven encourages the opportunity to prioritise and balance out workload. There will be increasing pressure to be more productive, but this cannot be done until an efficient plan is in place to go forward.

What to expect

On top of the physical changes, we need to respect that this has been a difficult time for many workers. For some just returning to work, it may be hard to get back, especially with the anxiety that this virus still has not disappeared and, of course, challenges thorughout this period such as animal euthanasia will have taken a toll on a number of workers who work so hard to care for the animals in their facilities. So, creating a positive, productive environment with proper training and processes to make this way of life easier for everyone is essential.

More importantly, we need to use this time to reflect. By learning what went well, what didn’t go so well and so what not to do going forward. Steven remarked, “it’s a fantastic industry we work in, everyone shares knowledge and I think it’s from these shared experiences, both good and bad and we all have both experiences”. So, he encourages professionals from all over the country, all over the world to communicate about how they are changing in this new world.

It will come as no surprise to see a change in research trends as there already has been as the fight for an effective COVID-19 vaccine has been put to the forefront. This is why we need to be ready and adaptable to change. Steven laid out an effective timeline that can work as a great guide for the next few years, for UK facilities particularly but not entirely!

The Positives

Like almost everything, the hasn’t come without it’s positives! And it’s important that we reflect on those. Communication has been key – In Steven’s opinion, we’ve been communicating within the industry now more than ever, and that’s something we should seriously focus on and continue to do so.

In a time where work has been minimal for some, training and education has been greatly appreciated and valued for technicians, who have used these past four months to catch up on their education. They have understood the value of education for employment – especially when getting work could become difficult.

As there already has been, Steve is confident that more training can take place online and he knows that through the likes of the IAT, big apprenticeship investments will continue to push this a create more opportunities for technicians.

Trade support

Understandably, there is a level of concern about support from suppliers and trade going forward but there is a lot of reassurance that the support is absolutely there, and traders have a lot to offer in terms of innovation, equipment management and operations.

We also spoke to Tim McDougle, Managing Director of Avidity Science EMEA, a specialist supplier of laboratory products for the life science, healthcare and vivarium markets. Tim and his team have also remained fully functional throughout this period…

“We have maintained a full service for our customers throughout, there is no “back to business” feeling as we have continually supported them with their sales and service requirements. That said, it is certainly getting busier and we are noticing a shift in workload as more and more sites open and run at full capacity.”

It was very interesting to hear about the effects of a national lockdown and continuing to serve the industry from Tim’s perspective. He told us all about the challenges surrounding using the governments furlough scheme and working from home, but also benefiting from an improved work-life balance. By maintaining continuity throughout this period, learning to communicate more, becoming more resilient, reducing travelling and spending more time with family, Tim feels that the team at Avidity are in a strong position to support the industry going forward.

While the “new normal” will inevitably take time to implement in our animal facilities, there is also a complete shift change in how we, as suppliers, learn to do business. Returning from a period of furlough, both myself and Alanah have jumped into a new way of working. At Datesand we have always prided ourselves in being a great team and much of this stemmed from physically being in the workplace together – even remote workers such as myself and the other sales team members were regularly on site and all employee meetings, lunches and social events were the norm.

With social distancing still in place, we can no longer have all staff in at the same time and most of the team are splitting their time between home working and the office. This means for most that the commute time has been cut significantly and the working day has become more flexible depending on our partners and children’s schedules. These are both positive things to have come out. However, the day to day and face to face contact with people, the quick chat while making a coffee or over lunch, the reassuring hand on a shoulder or hug are gone.

Tim closed with, “We feel positive about the future and keen to support our customers as much as we can in the race to beat Covid-19. For sure there will be long term changes, some things will never go back to how they were before and that is a good thing for the most part, but we have learned that whatever is thrown at us we will emerge from it stronger and homemade sandwiches for lunch are certainly cheaper than bought ones!”

The “new normal” will soon become second nature, we miss the face to face element, both with colleagues and customers alike. Even the commute and that time in the car or on the train to get mentally ready for the day or to decompress on the way home is missed…somehow the journey across the landing to the home office just doesn’t have the same effect!

Across The Pond – COVID-19 Impacts

The United Kingdom (UK) has just entered week nine of social distancing stay at home regulations unless, that is, you are a key worker, carrying out an essential shopping or medical journey, or leaving your home for exercise. The public is, in the main, under-standing, and compliant to ensure the slowdown of COVID-19’s spread.

While UK and European industry events such as AFSTAL, AST2020, and ScandLAS have been postponed or canceled, and the order is to work from home as possible, laboratory animal technologists continue to carry out essential care, welfare, and research tasks within animal facilities.

Impacts on Technicians

An academic facility manager, who wished to remain anonymous, shared thoughts on the pandemic’s impact.

“Many facilities are completing current studies and not starting any new ones for the time being, with many colonies and research activities just ticking over at a minimal level,” she said.

She noted that many technicians are struggling. Euthanasia
is hard and mental health awareness is important for technicians even in a normal environment. When something like this happens, the emotional stress is at a maximum and the technicians question everything they do on a daily basis.

“Campus can seem like a very lonely place. As a manager, I worry about my staff during this time and the lasting effect this will have on emotional wellbeing across the industry. While animal research is always essential, we need to support our staff now more than ever,” she added.

UK and EU Research Efforts

In late March, the UK government announced that six coronavi- rus research projects would benefit from a share of a £20 million government investment. Two of the six research trials will receive funding for pre-clinical and clinical vaccine trials as well as fund- ing to manufacture successful vaccines on a million-dose scale. Mice once again may be heroes with a number of animal trials set to go ahead. Professor Jonathan Heeney in the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge has already spoken of

a vaccine candidate that has the possibility to be ready for human trials as early as June thanks to the current DIOSynVax approach; a spin-out company of which he is CEO.

Imperial College London have also secured funding to move towards human trials after animal studies showed that their vaccine is able to produce antibodies that are effective against the virus. Researchers at Oxford University have also had promising results in their COVID-19 vaccine animal research.

A sense of collaboration has also proven effective as Cam- bridge University, GSK, and AstraZeneca have joined forces as part of the UK Government’s plan to boost testing. There will be a new testing laboratory set up specifically for this at the state-of- the-art Anne McLaren Building based on Cambridge University’s campus. Together they will provide high throughput screening for COVID-19 testing and to explore the use of alternative chemical reagents for test as well as providing process optimization support to the UK national testing centers.

Elsewhere in Europe, a collaboration between Utrecht Univer- sity, Erasmus MC, and Harbor BioMed has developed a human antibody that can inhibit the new SARS-CoV-2 – a promising step with plenty of potential.

Unprecedented Times

But it’s not just the researchers on the front line to whom we owe our gratitude at this unprecedented time, but also all the facility staff that come in for “business as usual” to continue their vital work and care for the animals that are so important.

Datesand CEO, Jonathon Wood, discussed the situation, some of the challenges faced and some positives that have come out of it. He believes that planning has been essential.

“We introduced policies for staff to keep two meters apart on site, to wash hands at least every hour and provided anti-bacterial gels and wipes to keep the surrounding as clean as possible. We sent questionnaires to identify staff, or family members of staff, who may be at risk and to ensure that all risks are minimized where possible,” Wood said.

Essential staff were identified, and all other staff could work from home with the provision of additional hardware such as lap- tops and phones to keep communication as fluid as possible. All of this was in place 2 days before Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the UK lockdown.

Support for Frontline Workers

In the UK, there is now a minute’s applause for our NHS and care workers every Thursday, where everyone stands on their doorsteps, balconies, at windows, or in gardens at 8 p.m. and claps. The na- tional response is incredible and the sound of people clapping can be heard across towns and cities nationwide. While standing with my family in our porch, I have been moved by the response but I’ve also reflected on our other COVID heroes – the grocery store workers, the prison officers, the delivery men and women, the sanitation workers, and of course research animal staff.

With a strong global response, we can hopefully slow and eventually stop the spread of this killer disease and with the con- tinued dedicated work of our animal research staff, find a vaccine in record time.

As we prepare for a long period of social distancing and undoubtedly a new normal on the other side, we thank all the laboratory animal workers globally for their service. Stay home, stay safe, and this too shall pass.

Nicky Windows is the Global Commercial Manager at Datesand in Manchester, United Kingdom

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