DHS biohazard lab investigating coronavirus

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Research labs across the government, industry and academia are working on one piece of the coronavirus puzzle or another. Looking deep into the germ itself are two parts of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology directorate. One is the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center — the other is the Hazard Awareness and Characterization Technology Center. That center’s lead biologist, Lloyd Hough, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss. Read more here.

Interview transcript:

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

Lloyd Hough: Thank you.

Tom Temin: There are two centers here, the NBACC and the Hazard Awareness Center. How do they relate and work together here?

Lloyd Hough: So the Hazard Awareness and Characterization Technology Center is something that we set up at S&T. We are above the laboratory, we direct the science that occurs at the lab. So the lab is obviously a complex organization. And there are multiple parts of science and technology that interface with the lab. I am involved in the science that they do and the science that they produce. And I’m very much involved in making sure that we’re doing the right science at the lab.

Tom Temin: And what are you doing right now with respect to the coronavirus, I guess, is it safe to call it a germ?

Lloyd Hough: Yeah, you can call it a germ. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is very much our highest priority activities. We have turned off most of the research that the laboratory was doing before the outbreak came to the United States and we have turned them on almost 100% to doing work in response to the coronavirus outbreak,

Tom Temin: And describe what it is you’re trying to find out about the germ about the coronavirus itself.

Lloyd Hough: So the mission of the Department of Homeland Security is to protect the country from biological hazards. And so what we’re trying to understand is a whole lot of different things that we need to know about the virus in order to best mitigate and protect both the DHS workforce and the rest of the country from the hazards that the virus presents. So we go through a fairly sophisticated evaluation of what is known about the virus. There is a document that we produced called the master question list that buckets what we want to know about the virus into about 15, very high level categories. And we take those categories and we go through what is available in the scientific literature and from colleagues at EPA and CDC and other scientific institutions. And we figure out what we need to know and we figure out what we don’t already know. And those are the things that we pick out to work on. And our laboratory because of its mission in bio defense is particularly focused and able and capable of doing work with biological aerosols and with biological materials on surfaces.

Tom Temin: Got it. So you’ve answered one of my questions. How do you make sure you’re not duplicating effort and that you don’t try to reinvent what is already known? That must be a big process in itself, just keeping up with the tremendous amount of literature being produced right now?

Lloyd Hough: Absolutely. We have a team of about five or six scientists that take a look at what comes out every week. And that is turned around, there’s probably another 10 or so people that put their eyes on it to make sure that we’ve spelled things right or we’ve said them in ways that can be understood, and to then be able to post that information. It’s available on DHS website, and it’s available to the public to share primarily with the scientific community. But we also try and capture the sources of where we’re getting all of the information about this virus.

Tom Temin: And to do the work that you do to examine it. Do you have samples of the virus does it require working with the virus itself?

Lloyd Hough: Absolutely. And that’s where the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasure Center, or the NBACC, comes in. They are a laboratory, they receive a stock of the virus early on in the outbreak. And they are conducting experiments with it in the laboratory as we speak.

Tom Temin: So there must be some pretty stringent measures to make sure it stays put and stays where you want it?

Lloyd Hough: Absolutely. The NBACC is a very unique facility. It was designed to work with some of the most hazardous pathogens that we know about. And there are lots and lots of engineering controls to make sure that the things we’re working with in the laboratory, stay in the laboratory and actually even stay away from the people that are working in the laboratory. So they go through a lot of effort to make sure that what they’re working with is very tightly contained and controlled.

Tom Temin: And what are the techniques you use? Are there electron microscopes? Or is it bottles and vials and tubes and so forth? What’s it like in the lab activities?

Lloyd Hough: It’s all of the above. So the techniques that we use to understand the virus berry with the question that we’re trying to understand about it, in this case, right now, what we’re working on is studying the stability of the virus in different environments. So we’ll grow the virus up in in a flask of cells, because viruses don’t grow by themselves. They are obligate parasites that require cells to grow on. So once we have grown up, the virus will take that virus and we we suspend it in media that is relevant to disease transmission, and in this case, we’re working right now with a simulated saliva something that is thick and a little viscous. You know, like what you would find in your mouth. We put little droplets of that on to different surfaces. And then we test how that virus survives on that surface under a variety of different environments. So we’ll change the temperature, we’ll change the humidity to make it look like it’s inside or to make it look like it’s outdoors. And in the summertime, we can introduce sunlight. And as we change all of those conditions, we can then collect the virus off of those cells and put them we go back into another flask and we count the amount of virus that left after it has been left in the environment in a particular environment for a period of time. And that allows us to understand how quickly is the virus going away. And this is really important because a virus that lasts in the environment for a long time, if transmission through touching surfaces that have virus on them, is important in the spread of coronavirus. The longer that virus lasts on the surface, the higher the risk is that somebody is going to touch that surface and then get the coronavirus infection. Whereas if it survives on that surface for only a short period of time, then you don’t have to worry about cleaning quite as much. What we’ve found is that the virus does under certain conditions, particularly those that are cool and not very humid, kind of like the inside of your house during the wintertime. The virus on stainless steel surface like a doorknob is going to survive for quite a long time. And so cleaning for this virus could be very important. We still don’t know how much contact of surface contributes to that transmission of the virus. But we do know that the virus survives on those surfaces for quite some time when those surfaces are not exposed to sunlight.

Tom Temin: So it’s safe to say that you have learned a lot about it then in the last say 8 or 12 weeks?

Lloyd Hough: Absolutely, we have begun to see that the virus does survive on surfaces when it’s cool and dry, the virus disappears faster, it dies on their surfaces faster as the temperature rises. And as the humidity rises. And we’ve also seen this direct sunlight with UVA and UVB rays, is also very effective at killing the virus. So outdoor surfaces we believe are very likely to be lower risk. And that if surfaces are going to be a problem in transmission of the virus, that it’ll be those indoor things that we have to focus on. So a shopping cart that is left outside in the sun, is probably a better thing to go grab than the shopping cart that never leaves a grocery store.

Tom Temin: And let me just ask a biology question leftover from a fragment that I recall from a college biology class and I won’t tell you how long ago that was. Do viruses die or simply the host there parasitic on die? Because I understood the virus can come back to life later on.

Lloyd Hough: Yeah, technically viruses are not alive. They are not living organisms, but they are viable. You can think of a virus as simply a payload of genetic material, and it hijacks your cells, but when it sits in the environment, those biological materials that make up the virus decay, such that the virus will eventually not be able to infect yourself.

Tom Temin: Alright, I guess final question is then what do you think we do next here.

Lloyd Hough: So what we’re doing next is we’re continuing to work to test more and more environmental conditions so that we can predict where the virus and how long the virus will exist in certain environments. We are also beginning we’ve started testing a variety of disinfectants that the EPA has recommended. To verify that these actually do kill the virus in the droplets of saliva and respiratory fluid that somebody might leave on a surface when they cough or sneeze, and we’re now demonstrating that those disinfectants really do work. we’ve demonstrated that bleach, a half cup of bleach in a gallon of water is very effective at killing the virus in five minutes and the isopropanol that you could buy it at the drugstore. Rubbing alcohol 70% isopropanol is also very effective at killing the viruses on surfaces. And then we’re going to go and further test other disinfectants that have been recommended for the contaminating surfaces to make sure that we have and know what disinfectants are effective and under what conditions.

Tom Temin: Lloyd Hough leads the hazard awareness and characterization center in the Homeland Security Department Science and Technology Directorate. Thanks so much for joining me.

Lloyd Hough: It’s my pleasure.

Read more here.