March 23, 2020

Defense against Coronavirus Starts with Prevention

PNNL scientists are on the front lines fighting against biological threats through early detection, diagnosis, and prevention strategies.

Fighting coronavirus

Credit: Image Composite by Timothy Holland / Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Three months ago, few of us gave much thought to the threat posed by coronavirus. But being prepared as a nation to respond to potential biological threats is part of PNNL’s mission. As we are all learning, infectious disease can be a threat to the security of the nation.

Scientists at PNNL are working along several lines of research to combat emerging viruses like the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which causes COVID-19 disease.

Our expertise in analyzing complex data is being put to use answering big questions, such as:

  • How does coronavirus infection differ from influenza infection?
  • Why is this virus, whose cousins cause the common cold, so severe?
  • How can each person’s unique biological signature be used to predict how to treat infectious diseases?

PNNL researchers have experience asking and answering these questions.

Read more about PNNL’s biodefense research.

Coronavirus conversations

PNNL scientists have been leading the national and international conversation on a number of important fronts related to biological defense, risk reduction, and prevention strategies. As part of that effort, biodefense expert Kristin Omberg and biochemist Katrina Waters talked about research on biological threats at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. Excerpts from that conversation follow.

“With the current outbreak of coronavirus, the first DNA sequences didn’t tell us if it was transmitting human-to-human,” said Omberg. “It was only when we got enough clinical cases and enough sequences that we were able to compare the similarity and say there was human-to-human transmission. And that’s true of all new diseases.”

Microbes are like cats, Omberg added. “They have a lot of functions that they could use, but they choose not to, because they don’t have to.” Microbes adapt to use the functions that are most advantageous to their survival, and that can be different for different viruses.

Understanding coronavirus vulnerabilities

PNNL researchers have spent decades advancing capabilities to detect traces of chemical or biological agents in complex samples such as the air, water, or food. Building on that legacy, researchers are shifting their focus to develop methods that detect proteins, lipids, and other small molecules that serve as markers of disease or response to infection.

PNNL researcher Jennifer Kyle processes biological samples

“One of the things we are doing at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is to [focus more on the host response and] study the actual biological response of the pathogen when it gets into a human host,” said Waters. The researchers are looking at how human variation influences the severity of that infection, how the virus affects our bodies during infection, and how that information provides clues for how to treat it.

“… At PNNL we have been developing these technologies for several decades but it’s really only been in recent history that they’ve become more sensitive so that we can identify more molecules in smaller samples with greater quantitative precision,” Waters added.

Computational tools and data analytics are advancing predictive modeling capabilities and building an understanding of how people are affected by biological agents and who is most at risk if infected.

Researchers process biological samples for pathogen threat assessment

“We are working to get the needed measurements down to just a handful so that it could be used realistically in a clinical diagnostic and at the same time allow for an accurate prediction of somebody’s risk or how you would want to treat them,” Waters said. “One of the key tools that we are applying to this is machine learning. Machine learning helps us [address] the big data problems, the complexity of the data that we collect, and the huge amounts of data that we accumulate, to help us identify those factors that are the most predictive in combination to be used in a clinical assay.” 

How to protect against coronavirus

“Right now with the coronavirus outbreak in the middle of flu season, the symptoms are very similar to influenza and so it’s hard for the doctors to notice or even the patients themselves to notice there’s something different going on,” said Waters.

So, the best thing to do is to avoid putting yourself in a situation to catch a virus.

“One of the big things that drives person-to-person transmission is [the number of] contacts a person has during the day,” said Omberg. “That’s why you often see these public spaces [associated with] epidemics because that’s where people get together, and that’s where they end up sharing germs.”

  • Avoid crowds
  • Wash hands
  • Stay current on your vaccines.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on signature capabilities in chemistry, Earth sciences, and data analytics to advance scientific discovery and create solutions to the nation's toughest challenges in energy resiliency and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on FacebookInstagramLinkedIn, and Twitter.


About PNNL

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistry, Earth sciences, biology and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Published: March 23, 2020