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Lockdown in Italy: personal stories of doing science during the COVID-19 quarantine

A man looking at a laptop showing the faces of meeting attendees.

Marco Foiani has moved his lab meetings online.Credit: Irene Giovannetti

Italy is at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic in Europe. More than 100,000 people have been infected in the country (including at least 8,956 health-care workers) and more than 11,000 have died. Lombardy, the region of northern Italy around Milan, is the area most affected so far. Northern Italy went into emergency lockdown on 8 March, and the government expanded the quarantine to the entire nation three days later.

The lockdown will last until at least 3 April — and probably longer. Many scientists have had their professional lives upended because they are sequestered at home or, if they can still go into work, they cannot collaborate in person with colleagues. Here, four researchers in northern Italy describe how they are navigating the lockdown.

Marco Foiani

Molecular biologist at the University of Milan and scientific director of the Italian Foundation for Cancer Research Institute of Molecular Oncology (IFOM)

You need an effective management team and appropriate online platforms. When the outbreak occurred, I was in the United States, but my institution’s safety and maintenance units have been brilliant and timely. Since day zero, they have quickly communicated updates on the lockdown by phone and e-mail, and passed on information on how accessing laboratories would change. At IFOM, we all work in shifts, wear masks and use social distancing.

Everything twisted suddenly over a weekend, after the announcement on 22 February of the local outbreak. But IFOM, which has 350 employees, was well equipped in terms of IT. Of course, we cannot stay productive like this on lockdown for more than two months, and I really hope that journal editors and granting agencies will understand that this is an emergency and maybe consider that we’ve had to slow down and cannot, for example, present preliminary data.

The week before the total lockdown, members of our administrative staff from purchasing, grants, accounting and human resources, among others, started working from home. We also cut lab work — we are starting nothing new.

Then, the real lockdown came and we reduced the institute’s output to the minimum. We implemented safety measures in all labs, including social distancing and shifts; some people are now working overnight, to ensure that there are not too many people in a lab at once to work at a safe distance from one another. Only researchers who are revising papers and have ongoing experiments have been working on the premises. Some of us, including those who do not work at the bench, such as bioinformaticians, can work from home. As scientific director, I can also work remotely.

During this period, I finally have time to write reviews. And I have realized that the right software makes the difference. We use Skype or Zoom for meetings of a few people. If more are attending, Cisco Webex works well because it offers high-quality audio and video, can accommodate more than 20 participants and has excellent presentation sharing.

I expect the entire institute to close soon. We will know more on 3 April, but we expect the current lockdown to continue.

A man in protective gear working with rows of boxes.

Staff must continue to tend lab animals at Giuliano Grignaschi’s facilities.Credit: Giuliano Grignaschi

Giuliano Grignaschi

Director of the animal-care unit at the University of Milan

The trams are empty, but the laboratories in our unit are currently full of young researchers behind masks. They have their experimental animals to follow, their projects to carry on, their patients waiting for answers. “There is not only COVID-19; all other pathologies cannot wait” — this is what I hear when I invite them to slow down their experiments. There are about a dozen still working, all in shifts to maintain social distance.

I haven’t stopped working. The university has five animal-care facilities across Milan and two 40 kilometres away at the veterinary department in Lodi, close to the site of Italy’s original outbreak. At the beginning it seemed impossible to manage all this remotely, but we have learnt that if an organization has good managers who can plan well, it can be done, at least for a limited period.

We are confident that animal welfare is not at risk. Our animals continue to be cared for daily, thanks to special permits that allow me and others to come to the facilities. I can monitor everything from my home computer, through webcams. I spend at least four hours daily in one of our five facilities’ offices to supervise technical staff. During the remaining hours, I hold online meetings to review ethical aspects of research projects.

Researchers are trying not to cull the animals unnecessarily. Maintaining the proper conditions of cage hygiene, temperature, and relative humidity is costly but also an essential ethical duty. Researchers are not starting new experiments that might not be completed if more restrictions are imposed, or if they develop COVID-19. We are breeding as few genetically modified animals as possible to keep the lines going.

A woman sitting at a desk in her living room.

Silvia Onesti is writing grant proposals from home rather than going into her facility.Credit: Silvia Onesti

Silvia Onesti

Head of structural biology at the Elettra Synchrotron facility, Trieste

When the lockdown was announced, my team was collecting data. Users from the areas most at risk, such as Lombardy, had already had their beam time — the time slot allocated for X-ray crystallography using the beam of the synchrotron — rescheduled, and other users were allowed to reschedule on request.

Now, the synchrotron is still active, but the laboratory has been closed to external users.

I am working from home, writing two grant proposals and editing theses and an article. I miss the daily chat with colleagues and all of the ideas and stimuli that derive from it. Despite the fact that the research activity in our sector is quite competitive, since the lockdown started I have encouraged my lab team to work from home. I hope this period will offer an opportunity to do things we never have time for: finalizing articles, writing reviews, doing bibliographic research, organizing and analysing the data more carefully, repeating bioinformatics analyses in light of new data.

My colleagues and I are using Zoom to meet remotely. We got a good offer from a national telecommunications provider for a one-month package that supports Wi-Fi.

We are worried — about everyone’s health, and about the consequences that might come from a long interruption. We are facing a delay in supplying purified proteins to some of our ongoing collaborators. I had to ask for a no-cost grant extension because the lockdown has made it difficult for us to finalize some results. In addition, I have a grant to start a training programme for early-career researchers, but two foreign students who were meant to arrive in Trieste in April will certainly be delayed. I’m hoping the grant is not in jeopardy, because these students waited a long time for a visa. It’s very frustrating.

A man wearing a face mask in a laboratory full of equipment but with no other people.

Marco Bianchi and his team are working in shifts to maintain social distance while keeping cell lines going.Credit: Marco E. Bianchi, Michele Ferrara

Marco Bianchi

Molecular biologist, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milan

Right now, the motto is ‘let’s finalize as much as possible, and let’s not start anything new’. The impact of the coronavirus was very gradual at first, but now it is almost impossible to work in the lab. We keep cell lines going by working in shifts. In our cancer studies with mice, experiments can be very long and costly, and we are trying not to stop them.

Keeping to the safety distance of 1 metre imposed by the Italian government would not be feasible in normal conditions. But since 11 February, the number of people in any lab has dropped by half, and we now have enough space to keep 1 metre away from each other. The idea of falling behind competitors who are not experiencing the same drama is frustrating. And I am not so sure that grant and peer reviewers will understand.

Initially, after the outbreak and before the lockdown, the work continued, with the necessary precautions. I streamed lessons from an empty classroom and connected virtually with people who weren’t there in person. My job was almost normal.

When the lockdown hit the whole country in March, the message from our prime minister was very clear: stay at home and leave only for essential things. Shops and schools are closed but city offices and postal services are open.

Life is complicated at different levels. At the beginning of the outbreak, administrative staff were invited to work from home. But it turned out that few had the proper technology to do so, and my institution’s technical staff had to implement a virtual private network. It took two entire days — it is not something that you can improvise in a few hours for thousands of employees.

There are other problems, because being at home usually does not mean doing work. Milan apartments can be small, so it is difficult to work from home when your partner or family are also there. Children who are at home assume that a parent at home is for them, not for work. Some people initially counted on grandparents to help them with childcare. Now, that is not possible, because people who are over 65 are at major risk from COVID-19.


These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.


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