The agency’s Science and Tech Directorate continues to focus its efforts on pandemic-fighting experiments.
Data-driven science experiments—and a little imagination—underpin ongoing research efforts within the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate to support COVID-19 response.
After releasing a predictive modeling tool that forecasts the decay of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on surfaces in May, insiders have now unveiled two new resources for the public to lean on amid the ongoing national health crisis: a second decay calculator that can help determine the virus’ lifespan in the air under varied environmental conditions and a do-it-yourself solution for decontaminating personal protective equipment using a relatively common household item.
“We are an operational component trying to take science and figure out how to apply it to help solve the problems that the department faces—and the nation writ large,” Lloyd Hough, a microbiologist who also leads the department’s Hazard Awareness and Characterization Technology Center, told Nextgov Monday. “And so that's what we're up to, and that's what we do.”
The multiple in-progress pandemic-focused projects and research endeavors are continuously being conducted and refined as part of the directorates Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats Hazards and Risks, or PANTHR program, and they involve both federal scientists and other relevant contractors. While some individuals are able to work remotely, some efforts are unfolding inside an interagency campus—the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center—on Fort Detrick in Maryland. The directorate did not receive additional funding in its budget for these specific initiatives, Hough noted, but officials “were able to find some resources to allow this work to be done.”
In his latest briefing with Nextgov, the general biological scientist detailed what went into producing the newest calculator and DIY decontamination technique and what scientists are learning about the virus’ deterioration along the way. He also offered a glimpse into the next efforts on the horizon that the directorate intends to pursue.
SAR-CoV-2 in the Sunlight
When the novel coronavirus outbreak emerged in January, Hough and his team quickly repositioned ongoing research efforts to focus on combatting COVID-19. At that time, Homeland Security swiftly produced (and now continues to update) a comprehensive, living document of information gaps about COVID-19, deemed a Master Question List. The department ultimately aimed to harness its capabilities to help fill those uncertainties.
Hough and his team quickly identified two crucial gaps they were capable of filling. To help prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2—a necessary move to minimize COVID-19’s impact—the team studied the virus’ stability on surfaces, which inspired the initial calculator that was launched. Another similar hole uncovered was in experts’ grasp of the virus’ ability to persist outdoors.
“We have some really unique equipment up at the lab that allows us to create these aerosols and maintain that temperature, and that environment and control for a pretty long period of time,” Hough said.
The team’s research results were already being made available via an academic journal but it wasn’t until the first predictive modeling tool launched that insiders fully registered that they had data to operationalize that could be useful to the broader public.
“So the calculators make it easy for people to plug in some temperature, some time, some atmospheric conditions, and they can see how quickly or how long the virus might persist under those conditions,” Hough explained.
The on-the-ground research efforts for the airborne decay of SARS-CoV-2 were not far off from the work done for the first calculator, which Hough shared with Nextgov last month. The main difference now, he noted, is that “instead of looking at the stability of the virus on a surface, we were looking at the stability of the virus as an aerosol.”
Aerosols can be miniscule, hard-to-see droplets generated by humans sneezing, speaking, singing and even perhaps breathing, Hough explained. To develop the new tool, the PANTHR team grew SARS-CoV-2 and put it into a suspension and substance that is chemically similar to human saliva but created in the lab. Scientists then use a specialized chamber to expose an aerosol containing the virus-laden substance to controlled temperature, humidity and sunlight settings.
“We hold it there for a period of time, we take samples out of the air, and we measure how much virus is still there. How much virus can we grow, or how much virus can we detect that is present in that atmosphere after a period of time?” Hough explained. “And that allows us to calculate what that half-life is, under those conditions.”
Those insights were then translated into the latest predictive asset that outsiders can tap into to inform their virus-connected choices with scientific evidence. And there is still much more testing to be done, Hough noted, but this initial work demonstrates that sunny, outdoor environments could be safer than enclosed, UV-less indoor environments amid the pandemic.
“Under the conditions we've tested, at lower temperatures and lower humidities the virus survives longest. And then as soon as you add sunlight to that, the virus begins its half-life—that period of time where it takes for half of the virus that is present to go away,” he said. “That half-life becomes two to about five or six minutes when sunlight is present at noon, you know, so it's pretty intense sunlight. But when that sunlight is present, the stability of the virus is greatly decreased, and the virus disappears, or loses its infectiousness under those conditions pretty rapidly.”
Decontamination via Multicooker
As the above experiments demonstrated, and those who work directly with viruses and bacteria collectively understand, heat and steam are particularly suited to kill pathogens that make people ill. With this in mind, Hough and his team also recently explored the potential of common, low-cost household items that could effectively sanitize N95 respirator masks.
On Friday, the directorate launched a DIY method for people to use off-the-shelf multicookers to do exactly that.
“So, the inspiration is that N95 masks are in short supply,” Hough explained.
Personal protective equipment is critically needed by doctors and other health professionals treating patients on the frontlines, and the U.S. has dealt with strains meeting that demand since COVID-19 hit. On top of medical providers, other individuals who interact with the public are also in need of PPE and masks to stay safe in the current conditions.
“There are a lot of people who work for DHS who are unable to do their jobs at a socially distant place—they have to interact with people closely, they have to interact with them indoors, and they may be infected and they may not be infected,” Hough explained. “And as a result of the shortage of N95 masks, it became clear that a lot of those people, a lot of people in law enforcement, were not being prioritized to get more masks.”
Further, while hospitals and other entities across larger municipalities might have access to sterilization systems to make the most use of their masks, essential workers for small-town police departments or paramedic crews might not have that luxury.
“So this becomes an implementable solution that is something that you can get anywhere. The materials are available at Target, or Walmart, or wherever you shop, and they're something that everybody can do to add that little extra bit of safety,” Hough said. “Your mask may or may not be contaminated, but here's a way for you to reduce any contamination that might be present on it—and enhance your safety.”
To determine the best outcomes for the new DIY method and also conserve the masks used, researchers on Hough’s team punched out small holes of an N95, placed droplets of the virus on it and then tested the virus-laden pieces inside a random multicooker at different temperatures. N95 producer 3M originally recommended that their masks not be used in environments above roughly 60 degrees Celsius, so the directorate’s scientists began tests at 50 C—but quickly found that it was not effective at killing the virus. “You had to treat it for many hours in the multicooker to do that,” Hough noted. The company went on to release an update that the masks could be used in temperatures of 70 C and, at that point, Homeland Security researchers tested, and ultimately proved that moist heat decontamination can be reached by treating the masks with 60 C or 149 degrees Fahrenheit steam for 30 minutes.
Though N95s are generally single-use items, “right now we've tested [this method for appropriate contamination of one mask] up to five times,” Hough said. “There are reports by others that it might be able to go to 10, but we've only done five.”
Recognizing that the topic lent itself well to visual demonstrations, the agency’s media team launched an instructional video and time-lapse relaying steps within the proposed decontamination process. To properly sanitize their PPE, individuals should fill their chosen multicooker, with a half-inch of water and set a paper bag filled with one or more of the N95 masks on a rack inside to steam.
Though this multicooking process solely works for N95s, Hough added that cloth masks should go through the laundry as often as undergarments do.
So far, the public appears to be making use of the directorate’s newly-unveiled COVID-19 response assets. As of Tuesday roughly 44,000 people have viewed the agency’s Master Question List and nearly 12,000 have tapped into its latest announcement on the multicooker. The initial surface decay calculator has also received 31,000 views since its launch and the latest, airborne decay calculator has now seen around 12,000 visitors.
Going forward, researchers intend to add a capability of sunlight’s impact to the surface calculator and they also aim to potentially introduce additional times, temperatures and atmospheric conditions to the tools. Presently, research officials are also studying the exposure of the virus in what Hough called “lung fluid, or simulated lung fluid.”
“If you've ever had a cold and you've coughed, you notice that it's not thin like saliva. So we're looking at other representative fluids to see if the virus has the same stability under the same conditions in different fluids,” he noted.
To support necessary sterilization efforts, insiders are also exploring other DIY methods using different household devices and easily accessible cleaning options, in support of people who might not be able to make use of multicookers.
“We have to think outside the box a little bit in order to keep everybody safe—and to make use of the important equipment that we have available to us,” Hough said. “Creativity is going to save the day at some point.”