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Planning for Surprise Permits DHS Pandemic Pivot

Sometimes scientists are the first responders.
Department of Homeland Security scientists serve as the first line of defense against the COVID-19 pandemic.  Mongkolchon Akesin/Shutterstock

Department of Homeland Security scientists serve as the first line of defense against the COVID-19 pandemic. Mongkolchon Akesin/Shutterstock

When the mysterious and deadly coronavirus invaded America’s shores in January, scientists who study deadly pathogens scurried to gather as much information as possible about the virus to help end the outbreak as soon as possible. They’ve answered some of the critical questions, but some answers are yet to come.

Some of those researchers work with a program called PANTHR for the Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats, Hazards and Risks within the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate. The program officially kicked off in October 2019, but it was created through a consolidation of ongoing efforts.

A government fact sheet says the PANTHR program provides critical technical information on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear hazards to decision makers and operators to enable more informed decisions in an effort to prevent, prepare for, mitigate, respond to and recover from a weapon of mass destruction event.

The primary focus is on man-made threats, such as terrorist attacks. “Prior to January, we were not doing anything with coronavirus. We were focused on things like anthrax and plague and other pathogens. But when we learned of the outbreak in early January, that the outbreak started in China, we began to pay attention and pull together some of the information that we might need to know about this new threat,” says Lloyd Hough, lead for the Homeland Security Department’s Hazard Awareness and Characterization Technology Center and head of the PANTHR program. “In this case, it’s not a terrorist that we’re worried about. It’s Mother Nature.”

Much of the research occurs at the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The one-of-a-kind facility was created in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and shortly after the so-called Amerithrax attacks in which letters laced with anthrax were sent to prominent personalities in politics and the media.

The center is dedicated to defending the nation against biological threats. Its work supports intelligence assessments, preparedness planning, response, emerging threat characterization and bioforensic analyses. “That lab is a special lab. It was built to allow us to work with biological agents, viruses, germs and toxins that are very hazardous,” Hough says. “The focus of our work, again, has mostly been on intentional threats.”

While terrorist attacks may be the primary focus, the facility was built to also help with natural events, such as pandemics. “There was a limited amount of laboratory capacity to do certain types of work in the United States with these high-hazard biological materials. So, we’re also a response element. When bad things happen, we pivot the research that we do,” Hough adds.

Early efforts focused on studying how the virus reacts under various environmental conditions, such as heat and humidity. That data has resulted in a pair of online calculators to predict how long the virus can last in virtually any environment. One calculator is for surfaces, the other for airborne COVID-19. Anyone can use the calculators simply by putting in specific factors, such as temperature and humidity levels.

Hough notes that his team did not actually build the calculators. That was done by others in the S&T Directorate using PANTHR program data to create the formula.

“The most important contribution right now are those calculators. Anybody who’s pretty good with Excel can put in a formula and … calculate or predict the decay of the virus either on surfaces or in the atmosphere when somebody coughs or sneezes or talks and generates infectious droplets,” he says. “Our concern is to protect the entire country, so we look at different agents in aerosols at a range of temperatures you can find in the United States. We try and look at a much broader set of conditions, both indoors and outdoors.”

Since the calculators are online, they are available to researchers around the world. As of late July, the airborne calculator had been accessed roughly 45,000 times, the surface calculator 63,000. And it’s not just scientists using them. Hough reports that an online travel site linked to them, and people from a variety of professions have commented on the tools. “We’ve gotten feedback from nurses and others that they’re using it. The Park Service. It’s getting a lot of use.”

Hough’s team also has put together a Master Question List (MQL) about the virus. The homeland security team evaluates scientific reports from across the country and around the world to provide information in a format that non-scientists can understand. The MQL is updated every week as new information is verified.

John Verrico, a spokesman for the S&T Directorate says the MQL is “extraordinarily useful” because “it captures everybody else’s research,” and it “encapsulates it into easy-to-digest little tidbits” of what people need to know. It also provides the citations so that interested readers can delve more deeply into the scientific studies. “That makes it very easy for somebody who is just trying to find some quick answers they can use to make a decision, and then have access to the deep, detailed report if they need it,” Verrico says.

Some questions, however, remain unanswered for now. Scientists do not yet know, for example, if the so-called “herd immunity” effect will help fight the virus or force it to become a seasonal phenomenon similar to influenza or the common cold.

As the general public struggles to find answers, some individuals suggest forgetting masks and social distancing so that herd immunity has time to take effect. Others claim it doesn’t work because some people reportedly get sick multiple times. “We’re not sure yet. The science is not out yet on whether or not your immunity lasts for very long or not,” Hough says. “The antibodies seem to go away pretty quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not immune.”

The Homeland Security scientists also have studied the effectiveness of disinfectants. Hough says all the disinfectants studied so far are effective as long as people follow the instructions regarding contact time.

He also reveals, however, that they have only studied the effects of disinfectants on the virus. They are not studying the effects of the mechanics of disinfecting a surface. For example, they are not trying to determine what happens if a person applies X amount of pressure or Y amount of pressure while wiping a surface. Nor are they comparing the effects of a disinfectant wipe, such as Clorox or Lysol, to paper towels or cloth towels. And they are not investigating what happens if a person wipes one time or 20 times.

Because of the variables between individuals, such as the amount of pressure applied or the number of times a person wipes a surface, the mechanics of disinfecting an object are simply too complicated to study in a lab easily, Hough says. The result is a very conservative estimate of a disinfectant’s effectiveness. But if a person leaves the disinfectant on the object for the recommended contact time, they can be assured the virus is no longer active, and the actual wiping of the surface just kicks the COVID-19 while it’s already down.

“I can’t tell you how much and how clean it is after you’ve just simply wiped it. I can’t tell you how effective a paper towel is with no disinfectant. But I can tell you that the disinfectant in that wipe needs a contact time to kill the virus,” he says.

Another PANTHR program contribution to the fight against COVID-19 has been featured on an array of news programs and YouTube videos. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that a combination of heat and humidity can sanitize N95 masks for medical personnel who have to reuse their masks. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency-use authorization for moist heat treatment of N95 masks using a costly piece of equipment.

“It’s a huge steam cooker. It is literally a very big machine with a fancy interface, and it uses steam to create a temperature of 149 degrees. If you put a mask in that 149-degree steam for 30 minutes, it will kill the coronavirus on that mask without destroying the mask,” Hough explains. “That’s a very nice piece of equipment, but that’s not going to be available everywhere. You might only find that in big hospitals or a limited number of places.”

So, Hough’s team set out to find a more practical alternative that doesn’t require a “many-thousand-dollar piece of equipment.” They tested toaster ovens. They also tested microwave ovens, which Hough says are good at killing the virus but also very good at melting the plastic in the masks.

They settled on multicookers—found in many households or online for as little as $99. The pressure cookers need a specific feature known as a sous vide function. “We found that by setting the temperature at 149 degrees Fahrenheit, you can put your mask into a paper bag, put that bag into the multicooker, turn on the sous vide mode, and in 30 minutes you’ll have decontaminated the virus,” Hough states. “We settled on the multicookers because they are very stable. They achieve the temperature, and they hold it very well, and because of the water in the bottom, they maintain that temperature without going too high. We’re very careful about choosing the temperature that will kill the virus without destroying or damaging the mask.”

The CDC also has issued guidance on the use of dry heat, vaporous hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. The PANTHR program personnel are currently seeking easy and effective solutions for those types of decontamination as well. “We’re looking at some of those other methods to try to make it more effective and more widespread, but we haven’t developed the final results, and we’re not quite ready to say we have a method or don’t,” Hough offers.

Asked how the PANTHR team can pivot so quickly from terrorist threats to pandemics, he responds: “We plan for it. It’s in the way that we’ve tried to set up the PANTHR program—expect to be surprised. We don’t know what’s going to happen next month. We don’t know what’s going to happen next year. So, we’ve tried to build the infrastructure to respond to events like these. That’s what we’re here for.”