When Nikitha Das gets up to go to work at a Cambridge laboratory these days, she has a new task that comes before brushing her teeth or eating breakfast: gargling for 60 seconds.
Das, a scientist at Tango Therapeutics, doesn’t have a sore throat. Under her employer’s new rules for returning to the lab, she gargles with a special salt solution at home in Billerica and brings what she spits out to work in a plastic tube. Tango scientists test her sample and those of co-workers for the virus that causes COVID-19, then e-mails them the results later that day. About 35 employees have provided samples multiple times a week since June 8 and all have tested negative.
In a separate effort, nearly 230 employees at a dozen biotech startups in Cambridge and Watertown have agreed to visit the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard regularly to have a cotton swab inserted in their noses to obtain a nasal fluid sample for testing. The employees typically get the results the next day. All have tested negative since the pilot program started on May 20.
Most of the employees participating in the Tango and Broad programs are laboratory scientists for whom working at home is impractical. The goal is to protect them from colleagues who may be infected, but have no symptoms.
“It’s definitely not something that I ever envisioned, but then again I don’t think anyone ever envisioned that pretty much the whole world would be on a lockdown because of the virus,” said Das, 23, who worked from home for almost three months before returning to the lab last Tuesday. “I don’t feel sick, but there’s always that slight worry in the back of your head of, ‘What if I’m asymptomatic and potentially spreading it to other people at work?’ ”
Few industries have become more critical to the Massachusetts economy in recent years than biopharma. From 2009 to 2018, the number of people working in the sector rose by almost 20,000, or 35 percent, to 74,256, according to a report last August by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council trade group. Some local biotechs have market values of tens of billions of dollars.
Although some biopharma employees have continued to come in during the pandemic under state regulations that deemed them essential, most have worked from home. While many executives have adapted to tapping on laptops at their dining room tables, working remotely has been hard, if not impossible, for bench scientists who need to run experiments. So a number of biotech companies have begun to let more of them back into the lab.
“We anticipate the non-lab folks working from home for the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, a cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who serves as chief executive of Verve Therapeutics of Cambridge. “There’s some benefit for executives and administrative folks coming in, but there’s also a risk. We surveyed our company, and the lab folks would feel safer if the non-lab folks didn’t come in.”
Verve, which wants to use gene-editing to combat heart disease, is among the dozen biotechs in the pilot program testing employees at the Broad. All of the firms are located in Cambridge except Lyndra Therapeutics, a Watertown-based startup developing long-acting pills that can be taken once a week — right now it’s focusing on risperidone, a drug approved to treat schizophrenia.
Some of the firms mandate the testing, while others make it voluntary.
Generally speaking, employers are allowing workers to come into the lab if they meet certain requirements, including regularly answering a questionnaire about whether they have COVID-19 symptoms; wearing a face mask on the job; washing their hands often; disinfecting work spaces after use; and maintaining social distancing.
Some biotechs with returning lab employees have blocked off common areas, such as kitchens, to prevent workers from clustering. Others are requiring scientists to work different shifts to reduce the number of people in the lab at one time.
In Cambridge, Triplet Therapeutics, a biotech working on treatments for devastating rare genetic disorders, has turned to technology to keep employees apart. Triplet ordered wearable devices that look like a wristwatch for employees and are made by Proxxi of Vancouver, Canada. The device vibrates if a worker comes within 6 feet of another employee with the same wearable technology.
“It’s to identify regions in our facility that may be high-contact zones and to remind employees that they are close to somebody else,” said Triplet’s founder and chief executive, Nessan Bermingham.
But the testing programs are probably the most obvious difference between how biotechs have begun to resume operations compared with other industries.
The employees in the pilot program visit the Broad every week or every other week. A nurse inserts a cotton swab into the front of the nose in a test that takes a few minutes. Employees get the results texted to them in about 15 hours. Each test costs $130, and employers cover the expense.
If an employee tests positive for COVID-19 at the Broad, he or she will hear from a doctor and must be quarantined. The employee needs to receive two negative test results before returning to work.
Tango is testing its employees’ gargled liquid samples in-house and picking up the $25 cost for each test. Tango is also testing samples of people who live in the households of employees, if they request it. If someone tests positive, he or she is referred to a private testing firm to confirm the finding. If an employee’s positive test result is verified, the worker must again be quarantined until receiving two negative test results.
It’s relatively easy for scientists at Tango, a drug firm developing targeted cancer medicines, to run the gargle test. And it’s not all that inconvenient for biotech employees in Cambridge to take 20 minutes once a week to visit the Broad for a nasal swab.
But what about workers in other fields who are slowly starting to return to the office, or hope to in the not-too-distant future?
JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, a public policy group made up of high-ranking executives from the state’s largest employers, said he hasn’t heard of any Massachusetts companies planning regular testing. Neither had a spokeswoman for the MA COVID-19 Command Center set up by the Baker administration.
Dr. Barbara Weber, Tango’s chief executive, said other businesses should consider it. Hiring a nurse for an hour or two each week to collect gargle or nasal samples from employees and bring them to a lab is not all that complicated, she said.
“We do this for flu shots,” Weber said. “I don’t think it would be very hard.”
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org