July 22, 2020
Web Feature

PNNL Research and Response to COVID-19

Researchers fight against the virus as on-site staffing levels increase within limited operations

Covid testing

A DOE team led by PNNL scientist Kristin Omberg is analyzing kits that could be used to detect the COVID-19 virus in a sample from an infected person.

Photo by Andrea Starr | PNNL

Our highest priority is keeping our staff, families, and surrounding communities as safe and healthy as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to deliver the great science and technology that the nation needs, now more than ever.

Staying safe at work

Staff who don’t require access to laboratories or other on-site equipment continue to telework to reduce face-to-face interaction. However, PNNL has gradually increased on-site work activities for those who need access to laboratories, secure spaces, and specialized equipment.

As part of PNNL’s limited operation status, safety precautions are in place to protect these staff members and, thus, our communities. Face coverings are required in most cases, along with limited numbers in workspaces to allow for physical distancing.

Visitors and events

Visitors, other than approved vendors and subcontractors, are still prohibited on campus. However, we are actively hosting online events, including virtual internships. Learn more about online events and the status of previously scheduled events here.

Bringing science to the COVID-19 fight 

We are working safely to carry out vital national missions—including using our research capabilities and resources to support the fight against the COVID-19 virus both on and off campus.

As a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory, PNNL has a remarkable breadth of capabilities ranging from highly sophisticated imaging, to unmatched expertise in how tiny particles move through space, to data and bioscience specialists. As COVID-19 hit home, we moved quickly to explore additional ways to apply our diverse expertise, research capabilities, and technology to help address this global pandemic.

Today scores of our scientists are engaged in dozens of projects in the fight against COVID-19.

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

  • Cough simulator – PNNL is the lead laboratory focused on how the virus moves through the air, what affects its movement, and what happens when it lands. The work is a perfect match of PNNL’s strengths in aerosol science and building controls technology.
  • Coronavirus treatment targets – Computational scientists and experimental (molecular) scientists are identifying and screening promising drug treatments by exploring chemical structures of viral and human proteins.
  • Next-generation COVID testing – PNNL is analyzing the efficacy of next-generation testing kits and working to develop nano-sensors to speed detection.
  • Home-grown medical supplies – A task force of national laboratories is creating designs for medical supplies and personal protective equipment that can be rapidly manufactured in the U.S.

Other COVID research and development efforts at PNNL include:

  • Understanding the structure of proteins on the surface of the virus that cause COVID-19, potentially leading to drug design blueprints
  • Studying how COVID affects the lungs and sickens patients
  • Developing a technology now being used by the Florida State Firefighters Association to kill coronavirus particles on surfaces in ambulances and fire stations
  • Creating new materials like ElastiDry, which repels bacteria and viruses
  • Studying 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

In total, more than 50 PNNL projects are underway or under consideration to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlocking the Protein Structure of Coronavirus

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. Listen to biodefense expert Kristin Omberg and biochemist Katrina Waters discuss research on biological threats.

Helping the community weather COVID-19 economic impacts

PNNL has established new programs to assist entrepreneurs, organizations, and businesses with technologies—some of which could help prevent the spread of COVID-19—or strengthen their existing product offerings. 

  • The COVID-19 Technical Assistance Program provides free assistanceabout a week of a researcher's timeto small businesses or organizations that need guidance to advance a product or solution that addresses COVID-19.
  • Designed to spur recovery in an economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, PNNL has waived the $1,000 fee for an exploratory license agreement so businesses and entrepreneurs can “test drive” promising PNNL technologies at no cost until December 31, 2020.

As one way to support the Washington State communities in which PNNL operates, Battelle, the contractor that manages and operates the Laboratory, has donated more than $180,000 to local community organizations to support those in need of food or mental health resources. Additionally, Battelle has helped to provide meals to first responders through local catering services. The donations are part of Battelle’s philanthropic program and have been directed to meet the needs of neighbors hurting from the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Revised: July 22, 2020 | Published: June 25, 2020