Senior Vice President for Research Harry Orf, PhD, describes how Mass General researchers are responding to the COVID-19 epidemic.

The rapid onset of the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in a massive redeployment of employees and resources across the Massachusetts General Hospital community. These changes have had a significant effect on Mass General’s hospital-based research enterprise, the Mass General Research Institute.

On March 16, 2020, Harry W. Orf, PhD, senior vice president for research at Mass General, announced the closure of the majority of lab operations, as researchers refocus their efforts on the novel virus. He recently discussed what the closure means for patients, how Mass General researchers are mobilizing in response to the COVID-19 epidemic and the impact this effort is having on medical research.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected research at Mass General?

We have closed most of our physical lab operations, with the exception of a few critical projects and those people that are doing COVID research that has a strong likelihood of making a short term medical impact. It was a difficult decision, but the bottom line is we had to put the immediate potential loss of life ahead of any short-term research gain.

Harry W. Orf, PhD
Harry W. Orf, PhD

What does that mean for patients and families who look to Mass General researchers for hope in other disease areas?

The labs may be shut down, but that doesn’t mean research has completely stopped. A great deal of the work is continuing unabated. People are writing grant applications and papers. They are searching literature and analyzing computational data. While non-COVID wet bench research has stopped, we’re still moving forward with computational research, outcome studies, and clinical trials that are therapeutic or that can be done remotely.

How is the Research Institute approaching the outbreak?

The size and diversity of Mass General’s research portfolio is an advantage in a crisis like this. We have 2,000 faculty members leading research programs here at Mass General. We have experts at the forefront of every area of biomedical research. Right now, a critical mass of those experts are shifting their focus to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Ragon Institute is a perfect example. They are one of the world’s leading immunology research centers. They were founded to develop vaccines for things like HIV and tuberculosis, but they are now leading a number of large COVID-related projects. Another group of our researchers is developing new ways to rapidly test patient samples for COVID.

How is the outbreak changing the landscape of medical research?

Together, we have mobilized literally hundreds of research faculty and staff who are working to develop devices, diagnostics and therapeutics …

One of the common complaints you hear about academic medicine is that it’s slow. You have institutional review boards, protocol approvals, agreements that need to be negotiated. And they all take time. But through this crisis, we’ve mobilized our support structure and found new ways to rapidly expedite many of these administrative and bureaucratic elements. That’s one change I hope becomes permanent.

We’re also seeing unprecedented cooperation across institutions. Researchers are often reluctant to collaborate with others in their field because they are basically competing for the same grant dollars and publications. But that hasn’t been the case here. People are reaching out, working with each other across all Partners institutions, across Boston and beyond.

We’re especially proud of our new effort with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Mass General Brigham Center for COVID Innovation. We got it off the ground early in the outbreak, and so far it’s a real success story. Together, we have mobilized literally hundreds of research faculty and staff who are working to develop devices, diagnostics and therapeutics to help with the outbreak. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when we come together like this.

To learn more about how you can support Mass General’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.