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Insurance challenges may lie ahead for New York labs hit by hurricane

At the end of turbulent week, the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy on biomedical research in the Northeast remains unclear, particularly at New York University’s Smilow Research Center, which flooded during the storm. The most devastating loss at the labs there may be the death of thousands of genetically modified mice and rats, and these animals represent the culmination of many years of research and thousands of dollars in funding. Although the cages the rodents lived in may be insured, it’s likely impossible to recoup the money and time spent to engineer the animals themselves. Biomedical scientists may not think about the insurance needs for their labs on a daily basis, and as some Nature Medicine spoke with, it’s not always easy to get experiments up and running even when insurance is in place.

The accident in May at the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, may provide a glimpse of the challenges ahead for local labs. Around 50 brains from individuals with autism were ruined when the freezer they were stored in malfunctioned, warming up without setting off any of the in-place indicators. The hospital will likely receive reimbursement for the failing freezer, and compensation for new freezers the hospital has had to rent in the interim, but there will likely be no reimbursement for the brains themselves, says Peter Paskevich, senior vice president of research administration at McLean. Money can’t buy back what they lost, Paskevich adds: “We could get half a million dollars for the autism collection but it doesn’t matter — it’s still going to take 20 years to replace it.” McLean is currently negotiating with a private insurance company that will cover the accident, though the dollar amount has not been decided.

Other universities are primarily self-insured, meaning the university compensate for such disasters with their own funds that they set aside earlier, says George Stancel, executive vice president for academic and research affairs at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. UTHealth experienced flooding and damage after Hurricane Allison in 2008, and relied on primarily on its self-insurance, though its buildings were insured through a separate insurer. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also helped with repairs and rebuilding labs, Stancel says.

Similarly, when the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, experienced severe flooding in 2008, it also relied on help from FEMA as it rebuilt, as it was primarily self-insured, says Mark Arnold, a chemist at the university.

It’s currently unclear what type of insurance policy NYU will rely on as it begins to rebuild; it is busy coping with the damage and has yet to respond to requests for comment from Nature Medicine. But in the meantime researchers at other intuitions who have endured damage from other natural disasters offer the following advice on how to start rebuilding to scientists affected by the storm this week:

  • Take inventory. In sorting through all equipment, take detailed notes of what has been damaged and what may have been damaged. FEMA and most insurance companies require detailed inventory lists for reimbursement, Stancel says, and Arnold warns that even if something seems to be working right now, it may still have suffered damage, so noting its exposure now is critical for reimbursement.
  • Keep track of time. As researchers, graduate students and laboratory assistants are reentering labs and attempting to move precious items to safer locations, keeping track of time may mean that the insurance company could reimburse these hours down the road.
  • Call the program officers who are responsible for labs’ funding to see if there is any option for extending research deadlines or securing supplemental research funding. The NIH extended deadlines for researchers at UTHealth following Hurricane Allison, Stancel says.
  • Help graduate students get on a fast track. Losing research is most devastating for graduate and PhD students who are attempting to complete research in a set period of time. Stancel, who was dean of the graduate school when Hurricane Allison hit, says he immediately asked graduate students to start rethinking their projects. Having them work at and with other laboratories helped alleviate the time crunch, he says.
  • Consider how buildings may be rebuilt and redesigned so this doesn’t happen again. While the desire to get labs rebuilt will be immediate, taking some time to decide what the best path forward for prevention of a reoccurrence of the situation is worthwhile. For example, Stancel moved all of the animal laboratories from the basement to the fifth and sixth floors to prevent animals from drowning in future floods.
  • While most insurance policies don’t have a way to reimburse researchers for their lab animals, which hold so much work, collaborating with other researchers who have done similar work may help to quickly rebuild at least parts of the populations that were lost. Yariv Houvras, who studies zebra fish at Cornell Weill Medical School in New York City says that because he’s distributed lines of his fish to other researchers, he could get similar lines back in the case of a disaster. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, have already made offers, according to The New York Times.
  • Raise money for research. While funding agency want to help researchers, Arnold says the University of Iowa received limited extra funding after their flood disaster, because research funding is so tight. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, it may be possible to set up a relief fund, as New York and the surrounding area are receiving “national and international attention.”

Got extra tips? Leave them in the comments section, or tweet at us — @NatureMedicine.

Image: NOAA

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    Jim Woodgett said:

    The financial loss is likely in the $millions but since most sophisticated mouse models of human disease involve multiple genes and recombinase drivers (not to mention different background strains), getting back to where you were in genetic terms is not just cost but time. What about the trainees trying to graduate and grants that are due for renewal based on progress? As for redesign, one reason these facilities are in basements is they are easier to protect from animal rights protests. That is unlikely to change. This is a timely lesson in the need for collaboration and exchange of research models. Many labs are reticent in sharing of precious animal strains yet it is the best insurance for such catastrophes. I hope our colleagues at NYU are able to recover their research programs as soon as possible.