We need a new kind of National Guard to mobilize scientists

In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted we needed 12,000 new clinical laboratory professionals each year to meet rising demand. That includes clinical microbiologists, highly trained scientists with Ph.D.s or medical degrees. But just an estimated 5,000 laboratory professionals enter the work force annually. Clinical microbiology laboratories today have more than 10 percent vacancies, and the pandemic has only compounded the shortfall. (Luckily, we’re not in short supply of the kinds of microbiologists who look into the basic biology of the virus, develop drugs to kill it or are working on a vaccine.)

To rapidly scale-up testing we propose a biomedical version of the National Guard, a rapid response force of microbiologists and other scientists who could help reinforce the health care system during pandemics. This would let hospital laboratories serve as the backbone for medical diagnoses in a pandemic. These laboratories are critical, because an estimated 70 percent of medical decisions are based on diagnostic tests.

While clinical microbiology personnel in hospital laboratories are stretched thin, thousands of research scientists with requisite education and skills (albeit without clinical laboratory training), are stuck at home because their research laboratories have closed. Many of them would welcome the chance to support clinical laboratories and help contain the pandemic. Right now, though, they cannot because they lack the training and certification.