Like grocery store clerks and Amazon delivery drivers, they’re among the essential workers of the coronavirus pandemic: the biopharma employees who must still go in to the lab or the manufacturing plant. But for these employees, going to work means facing elevated risk that they might be infected while taking public transportation, passing a colleague in the hallway, or peering over a Petri dish.
The companies that employ these on-site workers are navigating a series of once-unimaginable questions: Which research and manufacturing projects can wait? Which can’t? And what kinds of safeguards need to be put in place to protect on-site workers?
At the Silicon Valley headquarters of genome engineering startup Synthego, two stations have been set up so employees can use a forehead thermometer if they want to check their temperature. At cardiovascular drug developer MyoKardia, workers are alternating shifts so that no more than five people are on site at the company’s research facilities at any given time. And at a third company in Massachusetts, employees have to fill out a survey about their symptoms in order to unlock the lab doors.
Twenty one states have now ordered their residents to stay home. Those orders cover the three major life sciences hubs in the U.S. — California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey — but generally include exceptions for biopharma employees to leave their homes to perform work duties that are deemed essential. Those duties include running machines in factories, maintaining cell lines, and feeding the lab rats; many of the workers who aren’t staying home are among the lowest-paid employees at their company.
In many cases, there’s good reason to have biopharma employees on site: It remains vital that medications such as insulin keep getting produced for people with all sorts of medical conditions. It’s also crucial to send workers into labs and factories to work on diagnostics, therapies, and vaccines for Covid-19, as well as to supply the materials necessary for that labor. Others are keeping alive unrelated experiments and production projects into which the companies have sunk years of labor and millions of dollars.
But the varied approaches — who can work from home, which on-site safeguards to implement and enforce, what kind of sick leave policy to offer — highlight how the safety of biopharma workers and their families during the pandemic could hinge on where they happen to work. It also underscores how little power some low- and mid-level workers may have, if they would prefer to stay at home but feel direct or implicit pressure to keep coming in to work so as to be seen as a team player and not lose out on opportunities for advancement.
The corporate approaches are “all across the board,” said Laurie Halloran, the CEO of Halloran Consulting Group, a Boston-based consulting firm that has been advising biopharma companies on how to handle the pandemic.
“I know that CEOs and executives are paid to know all the answers. We don’t know them right now,” added Halloran’s chief operating officer, Greg Dombal.
Consider Xencor, which is developing antibody-based drugs for HIV, allergies, and a variety of cancers. About 20% of its staff are scientists that need to do hands-on research in the company’s lab facilities; as of last week, those employees must sign a log every day when they come to work. When they sign, they’re also certifying that they aren’t showing any Covid-19 symptoms.
“We’re allowed to ask that now, it turns out, my counsel said,” said Xencor’s CEO Bassil Dahiyat.
The company has also rearranged the spaces where those employees work, assigning people private offices and moving equipment around its research laboratories near Los Angeles. That should mean the limited number of employees on site are even less likely than usual to wind up working near each other — a particular concern in smaller procedure rooms.
“We want to get to the point where we have a very resilient system where nobody’s in contact with anybody,” Dahiyat said on Monday. “We’re iterating and we’re getting there. We’re doing pretty good, but we’re not 100% where we want to be yet.”
Then there’s the Lundquist Institute, a nonprofit biomedical research organization in Los Angeles. The institute occupies six buildings on a campus spanning 11.5 acres and is usually bustling with over 750 full- and part-time employees.
These days? “It’s a ghost town,” said David Meyer, the institute’s CEO.
No more than around 30 employees are ever on site at once, and that’s on the higher end, Meyer said. There’s a system in place to track when they enter and exit the building, so that if an employee tests positive for the coronavirus, others who had been in the building at the time can be quickly notified.
The institute has also beefed up safety protocols for its essential clinical trials. When patients in these trials schedule an appointment to come in for a necessary visit, they are greeted outside by an investigator wearing personal protective equipment. The clinician asks the patient about any symptoms typical of Covid-19, such as coughing or a fever, and uses a thermometer to do a temperature check.
Only then is the patient allowed to enter the building.
Even when companies are careful about worker protection, there’s still risk that on-site employees could be exposed to the virus — especially when the rules aren’t being enforced.
Consider the scene at Synthego, which has made a number of changes to try to keep its on-site employees safe.
As of March 16, 46% of the company’s roughly 250-person staff had been ordered to work from home. The on-site gym is closed. Workspaces are well-stocked with sanitizers, wipes, and tissues. The shuttle service for employees traveling to and from work is limiting seating to half capacity to help employees stay at least 6 feet away from each other. And face-to-face meetings must be limited to five people, the company’s CEO, Paul Dabrowski, said in a March 16 internal email to his employees.
But at Synthego, some company meetings that took place last week — including lunches and one-on-one chats — did not involve the recommended at least 6 feet of distancing, a person familiar with the situation said.
And while some of the employees in the company’s engineered cells lab were able to maintain the recommended minimum of 6 feet of distancing from one another, others were sometimes in closer proximity to one another, the person said.
Victoria Steiner, a spokesperson for Synthego, said that “the safety of our employees is a top priority.” She added that the company has “implemented many internal safety policies and measures to make our working environment as safe as possible.”
At Synthego, which manufactures materials for genome engineering and ships them to academic and commercial research labs, it’s not clear that all of its on-site operations are truly necessary during the pandemic.
Some of Synthego’s work is urgent. The most notable involves the company factory dedicated to manufacturing guides — the synthetic RNA molecules that lead CRISPR genome-editing technologies to their target. These guides are being used in the fight against Covid-19. For example, Synthego is supplying the guides that the company Mammoth Biosciences is using to try to develop CRISPR diagnostics to detect the coronavirus.
Along with Mammoth, Dabrowski wrote in another internal email this past Friday, Synthego is “directly supplying” a number of other industry and government groups fighting Covid-19. They include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sherlock Biosciences, CASPR Biotech, and an institute affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and UC San Francisco. Dabrowski noted that the UC Berkeley CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, who sits on the company’s advisory board, had been “reaching out for expedited shipping.”
In the guide factory, Synthego workers work in three shifts and wear gowns. Last week, there was sometimes a range of 15-20 workers in the factory at any given time, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Then there’s the engineered cells lab, which is devoted to supplying customers with edited cell lines. Synthego employees there perform tasks like introducing scissor-like enzymes into cells and running polymerase chain reactions to make sure the edits have been performed correctly. During business hours last week, there was sometimes a range of 10-15 people in the engineered cells lab at any given time, according to the person familiar with the matter.
Asked by STAT why it’s been deemed essential to have the employees working on site in the engineered cells lab, Steiner said the company could not disclose confidential customer information, but said that the “engineered cells operations are critical to our genome engineering work, including current Covid-19 response efforts.”
However, some of the production work continuing in the guide factory and the engineered cells lab is for customers that are not involved in the Covid-19 response, according to the person familiar with the matter.
The leaders of biopharma companies may find their safety directives at odds with another pervasive message: that the industry’s work is lifesaving and must go on.
Silence from a company’s C-suite could easily be interpreted as tacit approval or even pressure for non-essential employees to come to work, according to Halloran’s Dombal.
On Thursday, Dombal spoke with the CEO of one of Halloran’s client companies to make it clear the executive had to speak up and tell their employees to stay away from the office.
“We said, ‘We’re telling you right now, as your advisors, you have to take a position to send them home. You’ve got way too many people who are dedicated to their routine and also to the science that they’re working on,’” Dombal said.
“They don’t want to let the labs down. They don’t want to let the research down.”
One way for companies to steer clear of sending such messages: Creating incentives for workers to stay home. Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech incubator LabCentral is giving resident companies per-person rebates for every employee that elects to work from home. And Xencor has started reimbursing its employees for home office setups.
Beyond thinking about how to protect on-site workers so they don’t get infected, companies are also making decisions about what benefits to give them if they do get sick — and policies can vary widely.
At Synthego, employees generally get 15 days of paid time off; those who are working on site right now have been given an additional three days of PTO to cope with the pandemic, according to the person familiar with the situation. In the event that an employee gets Covid-19, they will have to use that PTO while out; there is no separate sick leave provided, the person said.
Xencor is taking a different approach to paid leave.
Not only is the company rolling out monthly payments to cover what employees spent setting up and running a home office, but the company has also decided not to require people to use paid personal leave if they are sick, if their childcare arrangements fall through, or if they need to take care of sick family members.
Requiring people to use vacation days for those reasons, Dahiyat said, could ultimately backfire in a notoriously competitive biotech labor market.
“Of course we don’t dock people there,” Dahiyat said. “You don’t want to disincentivize people.”
He added: “What a way to alienate your workers.”