Four (or five) months of works and a pandemic

written by Alexandre Robert, Facility Manager and Health & Safety Officer at EMBL Barcelona

December 2019. We started hearing the news about the beginning of an outbreak caused by a new strain of the Coronavirus, in this case in Wuhan, China. First thing that comes into my mind are those images of a similar infection in 2002-2004 that affected 10.000 people worldwide (SARS-CoV outbreak). But the world kept moving at that time, so we did the same this time.

At EMBL Barcelona, we were immersed in a new challenging project: to build our new Biosafety Level 2-Tissue Culture room with a Microscope Suit next to it. Revision of lots of construction plans, meetings with different constructing companies, negotiations, quotes… no one had the smallest idea on what was coming into our lives.

Image of the original room, with some furniture dismantled.

March 2020. The new strain of Coronavirus (now called SARS-CoV2 or COVID-19) started to arrive to Europe.

Oh wait! Maybe this is getting serious! I remember buying my first medical masks at that time. Pharmacies were having shortage on stock, so I managed to buy only four. Some of my friends were telling me I was panicking. Maybe… two weeks later the Spanish Government decreed the State of Emergency and we were locked down at home. We quickly learnt how to manage to survive inside our (tiny) homes, counting up the number of positive cases, feeling sorrow for the increasing number of casualties, intensive care units being collapsed, queues in front of the supermarkets, visiting tones of pharmacies trying to get a single face mask…

The whole world was in pause mode, and all the matters related to the construction of our new Tissue Culture room, had to be dealt by videoconference and by email.

May 2020. After two months of lockdown, the situation improved a bit and some of us were allowed to come back to the lab. Those days we were still impressed by what we were going through, most of us never had suffered a global pandemic. But we had  to carry on: an Organoid and Tissue Engineering Site as EMBL Barcelona required a bigger space to perform BSL2 cell cultures.

June 29th 2020: the official day for the kick-off of the construction. In front of us, a big challenge… the endeavour of the biggest construction we had in our site since the establishment of EMBL Barcelona within the PRBB. We had to turn a BSL1 laboratory into a BSL2 space with higher standards. And this construction had to occur in the middle of the biggest pandemic the world had to face in the last 100 years. Works proceed at a good pace in July. Incredibly enough, we had no positive cases in the Unit or within the construction companies. But things went awry soon.

The works started with extreme health and safety measures

Summer of 2020: ¬†brought a new increase of positive cases in the country, and we had our first positive cases at EMBL Barcelona, not only among our staff, but also among the different companies doing the works. The pandemic, together with other factors, delayed considerably the end of the works. At this stage, we were the only institute at PRBB doing refurbishments, and we just realised that it wouldn’t be so easy to go ahead.

At that time, I felt like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my Facility Management side was telling me that we had to finish the works as soon as possible, but as a Health & Safety Officer, I was a bit worried…

October 2020. The works entered into the most critical part. An improvement in the pandemic situation allowed many people to come to work onsite. At the same time, we had to connect the new Tissue Culture room to the main supplies. This translated into a crazy period in which we had to schedule electricity and gases general cuts and schedule experiments that could not be done during the hardest time of the pandemic.

Slowly, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel…

Luckily, everyone at EMBL Barcelona showed a lot of patience at that time. Gradually, the new space was getting its final shape and it was getting full of the brand-new equipment for the new space (biosafety cabinets, cell incubators…). And finally… in November 27th 2020, four (and a half, or even five) months after its initiation, we did the inauguration of the new Tissue Culture room with its microscope room next to it.

We proudly present our new cell culture room!

March 2022. Four waves of the COVID-19 pandemic later, one may take a quick look back at that period and experience mixed feelings. We managed to go ahead with our biggest refurbishment at EMBL Barcelona during difficult times but at the same time, many people, all over the world, struggled against a microscopic agent that no one could see (like a hidden enemy) and some of them could not even defeat it. Many people thought that humankind would undergo a renaissance process that would make the world a better place to live, but unfortunately, that dream has not come into reality… while our new Tissue Culture room did.

Alexandre Robert, Facility Manager and Health and Safety Officer, managed the refurbishment of EMBL Barcelona’s Tissue and Cell Culture Room