Fred Hutch mandates remote working to curb COVID-19

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is making its Seattle-based staff work from home in light of the emergence of a cluster of coronavirus cases in the city. The precautionary action comes as biopharma companies are starting to pull back from face-to-face events to cut the risk of their employees catching the virus.

As of Thursday, all of Fred Hutch’s Seattle-based employees, bar groups including security and research staff that need to be on campus, are working remotely.

"The remote work policy is designed to help ensure our research and other vital activities continue by having employees work from home if they don’t have to be on campus to do their jobs," a spokesperson for Fred Hutch said.

Fred Hutch plans to keep the mandatory remote working policy in place until at least the end of the month. If “conditions warrant additional time,” Fred Hutch could extend the policy. Fred Hutch took the action after one of its researchers, computational biologist Trevor Bedford, published an analysis suggesting there are about 600 coronavirus cases in the greater Seattle area. The analysis led Bedford to conclude Seattle is on the cusp of a Wuhan-like outbreak.

China put Wuhan on lockdown, but only after thousands of people became infected. Bedford wants Seattle to learn from Wuhan and act sooner, arguing that by working from home and limiting large events the city can control the outbreak. That position is supported by the data from China, which Thursday saw no new cases in the Hubei province, outside of capital Wuhan, for the first time during the outbreak.

Fred Hutch has heeded the argument put forward by its employee. Local health officials in King County, the Washington county that houses Seattle, want other organizations to take similar actions, advising workplaces to “enact measures that allow people who can work from home to do so.” The officials also advised postponing events and gatherings. 

Organizations in Washington and beyond are starting to take actions in line with that advice. Earlier this week, Seattle Genetics, which is based about 20 miles north of Fred Hutch, pulled out of an investor conference “as a precautionary measure related to travel amidst the evolving coronavirus situation.”

Elsewhere, event organizers are canceling gatherings altogether. In the U.S., Flatiron Health and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network have recently postponed face-to-face events. Over in Europe, Bio-Europe Spring has switched from an in-person to a fully digital event.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from Fred Hutch and to clarify that research staff remain on campus.