EPA working to learn about protecting trains from coronavirus

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Americans have been avoiding public transportation by the millions. People are simply squeamish about what might be festering on poles and grab handles in buses and subways. Especially with coronavirus abroad in the land. The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to help. It’s running a program in conjunction with two big municipal transit agencies, to test chemicals that can clean these surfaces and keep them clean. Researcher and chemical engineer in EPA’s office of research and development, Shawn Ryan, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with the details.

Interview transcript:

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Tom Temin: Mr. Ryan, good to have you on.

Shawn Ryan: Hey, thanks Tom. Glad to be here.

Tom Temin: Tell us what you’re doing. Well, first of all, which agencies are you working with? And what is it specifically that EPA is checking out here?

Shawn Ryan: We’re working with two of our stakeholders, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and the LA Metro. We’re trying to learn from them as stakeholders of the research that we do and what we provide, as well as provide them the information that they can then use and learn from to help them deal with the challenges that they’re dealing with every day.

Tom Temin: So you’re trying to discover which cleaning agents can be, I guess, federally approved for pollution purposes, but also can clean the surfaces so that they stay clean even after people touch them.

Shawn Ryan: Yeah, so EPA has a pretty good list put together. It’s called List N and it’s an EPA website, of disinfectants that work to kill the human coronavirus. So they’re applied to surfaces, they’re gonna kill coronavirus, and they’ve been proven to work very well. And so I want to be really clear that New York and LA Metro they’re conducting well thought all and extensive cleaning and disinfection practices using those disinfectants and those disinfectants. Typically what they are is you apply them to surfaces they kill the virus and that’s it, and so you have to continue to reapply them in order to continue to clean those surfaces and disinfect those surfaces. So if you can imagine if there are products or products that can have a residual effect, if you can apply this product to the surface and it continues to kill the coronavirus or any other virus for days to weeks to months, it can certainly help what they’re doing and help reduce the amount of cleaning and disinfection that they have to do in order to keep these surfaces free from coronavirus.

Tom Temin: And what are some of the chemicals in use now that will kill the coronavirus at least the first time?

Shawn Ryan: Sure, if you go to the EPA’s website or CDC there’s I think 480 products and things like bleach and 70% isopropyl alcohol. There’s many different types of products that are helpful as registered disinfectants and then they’ll have a claim that also then applies to SARS-CoV-2.

Tom Temin: So is the issue here that yes these materials will clean the surfaces but then the next load of passengers that touches it will undo the cleaning and you’re trying to find things that will keep it clean, is that the issue?

Shawn Ryan: That’s the potential. So for these surfaces, handrails or anything you can imagine that someone just touched it before you got on it and had to touch it or you went to it in hadto touch it, that person has a potential to shed virus or put virus onto that surface, and then you touch it and touch your face or do whatever and you have the potential to then the contract COVID-19. That’s the idea here. And so yeah, if there is a product that after I touch it, you come along Tom and touch that surface and it has already killed the virus that I might have put on that surface, it can help obviously, alleviate any potential transmission from surfaces.

Tom Temin: So what is it that you’re doing? What are the tests happening? Tell us about the activities to try to discover that particular quality in some of these cleaners.

Shawn Ryan: For the research that we’re conducting at EPA, we’re using our labs that are in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. We’ve really developed some really specialized facilities and unique capabilities in those labs over the years for our Homeland Security related research. So it really fits well to adopt those capabilities for investigating these kind of disinfectants, residual disinfectants and other devices that might be useful against the coronavirus. And in addition to that, so at those those labs we’re using viruses that do not cause disease in humans, but that can mimic the actual coronaviruses in terms of how they behave with disinfectants, how disinfectants might kill them. So we’re doing that in our labs in our RTP, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, at a really what I would call an applied scale. We can do it in ways that can really apply directly to a field application of these types of products and devices. And in addition to that, we do research at our contract labs that actually have the ability to work with SARS-CoV-2, and those are smaller scale experiments that can help relate the work that we’re doing at the applied scale to being able to work on SARS-CoV-2, so it provides that relationship between the surrogate and the actual agents that we need to show the relevance of the work. What we’re looking at is we’ll take materials, your common materials, whether it’s metal, whether it’s plastic, or glass, or fabrics, we’re applying these products that could potentially serve as a residual disinfectant. What they are is typically a protective coating that’s applied to a surface, sprayed onto a surface allowed to dry. And then that coating is meant to maybe provide some virucidal activity or ability to kill the virus for days, two weeks, two months after that application on those surfaces. So that’s exactly what we’re testing. We’re coating these surfaces with the product or applying the virus to the product. What can we pull back off of those surfaces in terms of infectious virus and what happens a week later if we try that same experiment again? What happens a month later if we try that same experiment again? Some of the challenges we’re looking at is, well that’s great is the product you can put it on and it can kill the virus for that day that week, that month, but what these products are going to be experiencing in the field is normal wear and tear, your normal touching of the surface, your exposure to UV and other weathering conditions. So we also have to figure out ways to test that product’s durability as well.

Tom Temin: Just to be clear, are you testing different products that are on the 400 list, on that N List, now at EPA? Or is it you’re basically trying different application methods for the same chemicals?

Shawn Ryan: Yeah, let me be clear on that. So all of those products that I mentioned on List N, those are what are called just your traditional disinfectants. You apply them to a surface, they kill the virus in that wet form, or whatever form it is, and then that’s it, that’s the end of it. These products that we’re talking about now that maybe provide some long lasting or residual properties, they’re not on that List N, they’re not registered for this kind of use. Most of them are not even what we would call or term disinfectants, most of them are what might be called a bio stat or microbio stat where they have been proven to be effective at controlling the growth of odor causing bacteria or mold or mildew, they have not been proven to be able to kill or prevent the growth of public health pathogens. So that’s where we really are coming in. There’s these products that are not currently registered, they haven’t been proven for use as long lasting disinfectants against the public health pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2. So we’re trying to investigate whether the potentials that are being brought out here really might come to fruition, that they really might be effective to do that.

Tom Temin: Got it. So basically, you’re testing two things. One, these materials, whether they can be used in this secondary purpose they’re not approved for at the moment. And second, whether they can be applied in a way that’s practical for transit agencies in real life.

Shawn Ryan: Absolutely. That’s exactly right.

Tom Temin: And if they prove that they can work and can be applied, whether some of the spray on methods or paint on methods or fumigating, whatever you do, then is there a process to get them approved by EPA for for that new purpose.

Shawn Ryan: Yeah, that’s the challenge. And we’re working really collaboratively on the research side, on our regulatory side, to really come up with what is an appropriate metric, what is an appropriate challenge that these types of products really need to pass in order to prove that they are both safe and effective, right. And if you can imagine that if we’re coding many, many surfaces, obviously, we want these products to be safe, we want the fact that you touch the product or you touch the hand real is coated with this product, that that’s not going to have some public health impact by itself. So one it has to be safe, and then two, it has to be effective. So what’s the right way to test that efficacy? As I mentioned, these products typically are not what is called disinfectants. They don’t typically kill bacteria, which is usually the first step in proving something as an effective disinfectant. But they may kill a virus, so they kind of fall in a new class or a different class for a registered product, and we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to get these products out there if they truly are effective and make sure that they do pass some bar that does show they’re both safe and effective.

Tom Temin: And how far are you into these experiments and is there any promising results yet?

Shawn Ryan: Yeah, so we’re moving quite rapidly through this testing. I think a big part of our testing is trying to assess whether these products show any promise. So as I mentioned, the surrogate testing at our Research Triangle Park facilities in North Carolina, we’ve tested probably six to eight different products currently under a number of different conditions. Those conditions are how you might apply these products, to what surfaces you might apply them to, under what conditions, and trying to see what of those parameters, test parameters, really impact our efficacy measurements. And then from there, in the next few weeks, we’ll be starting up the work against the actual SARS-CoV-2, and then once we have that body of information, I think we’ll have a huge step towards figuring out what is a great way to test these products and hopefully bring ones that work to the market.

Tom Temin: Shawn Ryan as a researcher Chemical Engineer in the Office of Research and Development at the EPA. Thanks so much for joining me.

Shawn Ryan: Well thank you Tom. I really appreciate it.

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