In preparation for understaffing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some animals in WVU’s research labs have been euthanized.

“At a time like this we just ask [researchers] to look through their colonies and make sure that they are not keeping lines that are not necessary,” said Ida Washington, interim attending veterinarian and Office of Laboratory Animal Research interim director. “We are trying to prepare for staffing reduction on the chance that the animal care staff is affected by this virus.”

WVU is home to several species used in research, including pigeons, rats, mice, rabbits, frogs, biomedical sheep and other agricultural animals. Washington said mice populations have been almost exclusively impacted so far, with about an 18% reduction.

She said a reduction this size is not unheard of.

The biggest reason this reduction is being seen is because researchers are urged to look more carefully at their current populations and determine which ones are critical to keep in the lab.

“They often have strains that they don’t plan to use going forward or are sort of an intermediate strain that is not necessary to retain. Those are the ones that have probably been euthanized,” Washington said. “We have just had people look at it more carefully recently and that has resulted in people doing the right thing and eliminating unnecessary animals.”

WVU research labs follow the American Veterinary Medical Associations guidelines for human euthanasia of animals. Washington said typically the approved method used by WVU is a process where mice overdose on carbon dioxide.

Washington said the labs have a strict set of protocols that are taken to ensure the animals on campus are well cared for despite staff reductions.

“This happens even if a regular flu goes through our human staff,” Washington said. “We need to have a backup plan to make sure we can still care for the animals.”

As research on WVU’s campus has come to a halt, students are unsure of how to continue their projects.

“Best case scenario they let us go back in at some point, and I can actually pick up where I left off,” said Rebecca Caughron, a second year behavioral analysis graduate student. “Because we don’t know how long it will last, I have no idea when I will be able to pick back up, finish my project, and then get my degree.” 

Although several students are able to conduct some of their research from home, others like Caughron who work with animals are left with little to no options.

Five days a week, Caughron worked with rats on campus to test how certain drugs impact behavior. She said her experiment was projected to be completed by the end of this semester, and she planned to defend her thesis in early fall.

She said, as of now, she is unsure if she will be able to complete her degree on time.

Caughron said researchers are continuing to receive payment for their work and are encouraged to work from home as much as possible.

Michael Perone, WVU professor of psychology, said the University is providing accommodations to ensure research is interrupted as little as possible.

“The major accommodation is that we have been allowed to maintain our animals in a condition that keeps them ready to resume the research when we are allowed to reopen the lab,” Perone said. “These are very reasonable accommodations.”

These accommodations allow Perone’s lab group to keep the animals on their current, regulated feeding regimen. Perone said one person is allowed on campus for an hour each day to weigh and feed the animals.  

He said in another lab, animals in research that require daily drug injections can continue to receive the drugs.   

Perone said for students who may need to prolong their projects, it is too soon to determine if stipend extensions for another semester or year will be available.

Correction: The title of this article has been adjusted to more accurately convey its contents.