July 13, 2020

PNNL Fights COVID-19 on an Array of Research Fronts

Laboratory draws on its people, capabilities as pandemic persists

COVID research - test tubes

PNNL scientists running laboratory tests related to the novel coronavirus.


Photo by Andrea Starr | PNNL

Six months into a pandemic that has claimed more than 570,000 lives worldwide, scores of scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are engaged in dozens of projects in the fight against COVID-19.

The efforts stretch across PNNL and draw on a remarkable breadth of capabilities. These include sophisticated imaging, unmatched expertise in how tiny particles weave through space, and computational capabilities to crunch the odds of millions of molecular combinations occurring. But most of all, PNNL brings an army of dedicated scientists working intently to pivot in the workplace and deploy their expertise against the novel coronavirus.

“Our staff have come together quickly and marshalled their diverse expertise to respond to the vast challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said biomedical scientist Katrina Waters, who is coordinating PNNL’s research response to COVID-19. “I am extremely proud to be part of such an outstanding team responding to the nation’s needs at this critical time.”

From exploring the possibility of increasing the pipeline of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the medical community to deploying machine learning to size up drug targets, PNNL scientists are approaching SARS-CoV-2 in a myriad of ways.

PNNL is involved in four large, multi-laboratory efforts funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory (NVBL), a consortium of national laboratories focused on response to COVID-19, with funding provided by the Coronavirus CARES Act.

The virus that causes COVID
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (purple). (Photo courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health)

Cough simulator

PNNL is the lead laboratory of a multi-laboratory effort focused on viral fate and transport. How does the virus travel in buildings? What are the effects of humidity, temperature, ventilation rates, and number of building occupants? What are the chemical and physical properties of materials that influence viral stability and transmission?

Scientists Gourihar Kulkarni, Nora Wang, and others will generate an expulsion of harmless particles that simulate the virus and monitor how they travel through a building. Odeta Qafoku will use atomic force microscopy in the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) to study the binding rates of viral structures on surfaces. The work is a perfect match of PNNL’s strengths in aerosol science and building controls technology. The overall effort, tapping scientists at 11 DOE laboratories, is led by Waters.

Coronavirus treatment targets

Data scientist Bobbie-Jo Webb-Robertson is heading PNNL’s involvement in a project involving nine DOE laboratories to generate new leads for both vaccines and treatments. Experimentalists and computational scientists will work in tandem to explore the chemical structures and dynamics between viral proteins and human proteins, to identify targets, screen them, and test them in the laboratory. Experiments by Ying Zhu and Garry Buchko will be complemented by the computational expertise of Neeraj Kumar, Simone Raugei, and Jason McDermott.

The work taps historic PNNL strengths in computation and molecular dynamics with the Laboratory’s expertise using sophisticated instrumentation to understand exactly what’s happening at the molecular level. Also key is data management and analysis. The amount of data generated by scientists trying to stop the virus is growing exponentially along with the rise in infections.

Next-generation COVID testing and defense

A third multi-laboratory NVBL project is focused on the creation of next-generation assays. A PNNL team led by Kristin Omberg is analyzing the efficacy of coronavirus testing kits that could be used to monitor disease prevalence. Jason McDermott will take a close look at microbial friends and foes within the nose. Jayde Aufrecht will explore the development of nano-sensors to speed detection, and a crew at EMSL will look at how the body recognizes the virus and marshals the immune system to attack.

Home-grown medical supplies

The current shortages of surgical masks, face shields, and ventilators put medical professionals at greater risk of contracting coronavirus and result in a slower response to patient care. To address these shortfalls, a task force of 16 national laboratories is working to create designs for medical supplies that could be rapidly manufactured in the United States instead of relying on imported goods. From April until June, PNNL engineers developed design solutions to address critical medical supply chain shortages for:

  • ventilator breathing circuits—materials that are used once per patient and cannot be reused between patients;
  • reusable respirators for mass production, increasing the speed at which respirators can be manufactured and reducing the amount of N95 filter material required in every mask; and
  • a flexible frame to optimize the fit of surgical masks and cloth masks to increase the efficacy of face coverings.
PNNL engineers have developed design solutions to address critical medical supply chain shortages for personal protective equipment. (roibu | Shutterstock.com)

Other efforts at PNNL include:

  • Studies of social media activity to gauge sentiment around issues like social distancing and face coverings.
  • Screening currently available drugs to measure their activity against coronavirus.
  • Tracking the immune response as patients fight COVID.
  • Modeling how a vaccine, once developed, can be deployed most effectively.
  • Data mining using natural language processing and machine learning to track disease activity.
  • New materials like ElastiDry that could aid the coronavirus fight.
  • Studies of how COVID affects the lungs and sickens patients.

Overall, PNNL scientists have submitted more than 200 ideas to the “Innovation Foundry,” PNNL’s method for evaluating proposed research related to COVID-19. More than 50 projects are underway or under consideration.

In its COVID-19 response, PNNL scientists are working with counterparts at DOE, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Defense, and others.

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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 https://energy.gov/science. For more information on PNNL, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.