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COVID-19 Laboratory Challenges and Lessons: Part 1

COVID-19 Laboratory Challenges and Lessons: Part 1

Duke Human Vaccine Institute Accessioning Unit handles steep increase in COVID-19 related work

Scott D. Hanton, PhD

Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned...

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Thad Gurley, Duke Human Vaccine Institute Accessioning Unit

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted laboratories across the world. Some laboratories have been labeled non-essential and face the challenges of being forcibly idled. Other laboratories have been labeled essential and face the challenge of keeping workers safe and delivering for their stakeholders during this crisis. This article is the first of three interviews with leaders of laboratories that have been labeled essential and how they have developed interesting and important ways to address the challenges faced during this pandemic. View part 2 here, and part 3 here.

The Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) Accessioning Unit at Duke University is a shared resource that provides support for human clinical studies as part of research into infectious diseases that impact global health. The team provides a number of different laboratory supports for research, including recruiting participants, processing, storing, and retrieving specimens. In addition, the team provides similar support for non-human primate vaccine studies. The team is led by Thad Gurley, who is both an associate research laboratory manager in DHVI and the core manager for the Accessioning Unit. 

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DHVI response to the COVID-19 crisis 

Q: What was DHVI’s biggest challenge during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: Staffing the laboratory. Because of their expertise, our DHVI Accessioning Unit became the key processing laboratory for all COVID-19 studies at the Duke University Medical Center since mid-March. The work has overwhelmed our five-person team.

Q: What have you done to address this challenge?

A: To have sufficient people in the laboratory and keep them all safe, we have recruited additional team members from other campus labs and added a second shift. This has required significant schedule juggling. To more easily build and maintain the schedules, we’ve started using the Shifts function in Microsoft Teams for the 10 members of the team. To improve communication and sharing across the team, we have also implemented other Teams functions.  We use Chat to streamline communication and reduce email, File Share to share online documents, and Channel to communicate about specific lab processes. The team adopted these new tools easily and now champion their use.

Q:What is something you are particularly proud of that your lab has accomplished during the crisis?

A: I am extremely proud of my team’s perseverance during the COVID-19 outbreak. We are processing blood, nasal swab, stool, urine, and saliva samples from six different COVID-19 studies at Duke University Medical Center. This is a ton of work and the team has never wavered in receiving, processing, and storing all of the COVID-19 specimens.

Q: What is something that you changed due to the COVID-19 crisis that you think should be retained in the new normal?

A: Shift work will likely last for the rest of 2020, or until there is a vaccine. Shifts will enable social distancing and help keep staff safe. We also need to retain the improved critical listening, collaborative decision-making, and trust we developed to deal with the crisis.

Q: What is the most important thing you've learned about your lab during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: I’ve learned that this is a resilient lab. I’ve constantly come to them with new studies and they have always been receptive to the additional work.

Q: What is one thing you wish your vendors would provide/offer differently due to COVID-19?

A:  Luckily, I have a great network of vendor account managers and sales representatives.  They were able to guarantee their support with purchasing supplies, reagents, and getting preventive maintenance addressed. This allowed me to focus on organizing and coordinating study processing in the Accessioning Unit.

Q: What are some things you think your lab has done well to make you feel safe at work during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: The DHVI Safety Team has prepared the lab well. We all feel safe entering the building. Some of the safety precautions include providing us with face masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes.

Q: What advice do you have for other labs about dealing with the issues driven by the COVID-19 crisis?

A: My advice would be to listen to your team. Early in the COVID-19 outbreak, we were moving so quickly I was making snap judgments. Most of these turned out OK, but some did not. Luckily, through our weekly lab meeting, my team was able to talk with me and express their opinions about what was working and what wasn’t.


The DHVI Accessioning Unit has faced a steep increase in COVID-19 related work during the crisis. By developing new scheduling tools, creating a second shift, using improved communication tools, and recruiting additional staff from other campus labs, they have been able to handle the work. Key learnings include the value of resilience, perseverance in the face of mounting work, active listening, and building strong relationships with vendors and account managers.

Thad Gurley, MS, is an associate research laboratory manager for Dr. Tony Moody’s Laboratory and the Accessioning Unit and Repository at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. In addition, he is the core manager for the Accessioning Unit Core, a member of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute Shared Resource Core Facility. He has more than seven years of laboratory and core laboratory management experience and more than 13 years of sample processing and storage experience with the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. As manager of the Accessioning Unit Core, he leads a team of five staff that provide the isolation and storage of sera, plasma, and PBMCs from whole blood in support of DMID-VTEU, CISA, and HVTN clinical trials. He received his bachelor of science in zoology from North Carolina State University and his master of science in microbiology and immunology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.