5 Ways COVID-19 Has Impacted University Research Compliance

5 Ways COVID-19 Has Impacted University Research Compliance


As we each continuously define our own new normal and learn to navigate it, I was reflecting on all the ways the day-to-day issues have changed in the world of research compliance.  This includes, but stretches beyond, export controls compliance.  

Below are 5 ways university research compliance has been affected by COVID and the new work environment.  The varied nature of this list reminds us that export compliance, research compliance, and research security overall impact all parts of university operations.   While international travel has become much less of an issue with travel restrictions, a host of other challenges have developed during the coronavirus pandemic.  

#1 – Online Student Learning 

International students are learning from their home countries.  This has prompted research compliance personnel to understand what it means for graduate students versus undergraduate students, standard catalog courses versus research, and working from U.S. sanctioned countries.

#2 – Vaccine research

Most, if not all, non-COVID research was halted for months as university campuses shut down.  And research on coronavirus vaccines ramped up.  This has raised export control issues for some organizations who are new to exporting and needed to understand the basics behind exporting a vaccine.  It also led to the Department of Commerce BIS to issue a FAQ on the export control classification number of SARS-CoV-2 and it’s specific genetic elements

#3 – Data Security and Physical Security 

Many, but not all U.S. university campuses have reopened to varying degrees.  Some campuses have the full (or nearly full) student and faculty population returning.  Others have restrictions on how many researchers can be physically located in a lab at once, leading to a reservation system.  Conducting research remotely (e.g., from a home office) brings on questions about physical security and data security that have research compliance officers assessing risk versus reward, as well as exploring commercial software solutions such as Amazon GovGloud, Microsoft Office 365 GCC High, and other smaller platforms.  

#4 – Immigration Policies

Threats by the White House to cancel the visas for thousands of Chinese graduate students was seen to go into effect for many Chinese nationals working on research in the U.S. under F and J visas.  The latest updates are interim final rules that impact wages, type of degrees, and length of stay.  Public comments on these interim final rules must be received between November 9, 2020 and December 7, 2020 to be considered.  These new government rules are part of a planned overhaul of the H1-B visa program that includes an I-129 form deemed export attestation form. 

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)


Department of Labor (DOL)


To submit public comments for either interim rule, click here and search on DHS Docket No. USCIS-2020-0018 and DOL Docket No. ETA-2020-0006.

All this drives changes to research teams where authorized access by foreign persons needs to be reassessed and Technology Control Plans (TCPs) need to be updated.  The necessary close collaboration between an Export Controls Office and Immigration Office is more critical than ever. 

#5 – China-U.S. Relationship

We are seeing China-U.S. tensions played out in a variety of ways.  While COVID isn’t the sole reason behind all of them, it certainly has fueled the souring of the relationship between the countries.  The complex relationship manifests itself through U.S.-China trade deals to a continually heightened focus on reporting or disclosing potential sources of foreign influence in federally funded research programs.  

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