When the COVID-19 virus took hold in March 2020, the nation’s vast array of research experts were quick to mobilize. Researchers from universities and national laboratories began connecting to brainstorm how they could share skills and capabilities to respond to the pandemic.
“When the academic community and the national labs match up to do work together, they fill the whole spectrum of things that the national labs do really well, the universities don’t particularly excel at, and vice versa,” said Idaho National Laboratory researcher Travis McLing, who helped spearhead a collaboration with academic and industry researchers.
On the federal government side, the U.S. Department of Energy pulled together the competence and resources from its 17 national laboratories to create the National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory (NVBL). With nearly $100 million of funding from the CARES Act, the virtual lab unites research expertise on a national scale to fight the pandemic.
“Each of the national labs has capabilities that can be brought to bear on solving this problem,” said INL Deputy Lab Director for Science & Technology Marianne Walck, who works with Stephen Streiffer of Argonne National Laboratory to lead NVBL’s executive activities. “Coordination across federal agencies is important because everyone wants to help.”
When the Energy Department launched the virtual lab, it identified areas where each national laboratory could make distinctive contributions. INL’s capabilities in advanced manufacturing and electronics made it a natural choice to lead the ventilator subgroup of the NVBL advanced manufacturing effort.
Early in the pandemic, a North Idaho ventilator company, Percussionaire, asked whether INL could help it quickly support manufacturing its intrapulmonary percussive ventilation devices. These systems have distinct advantages over typical ventilators used in hospital settings because they deliver oxygen in fast pulses and at low pressure, which is easier on a patient’s lungs. “Less pressure means less damage and more effective ventilation,” said INL’s Director of Advanced Manufacturing Rob O’Brien. “It is a very exciting technology.”
Percussionaire, however, faced a manufacturing bottleneck due to limited availability of some of the parts required to make the ventilators. To sidestep the immediate shortage, INL researchers redesigned the ventilator’s monitoring system to use easily available electronic equipment.
The lab also helped Percussionaire and other manufacturers address their supply chain challenges. INL data scientists designed a supply chain analysis tool that can find where components and materials sit in the inventory. O’Brien predicts that it can be used in other contexts, well after the pandemic is over. “Winter storms hit every year, power supplies are down and there always seems to be a scramble to locate power distribution equipment,” he said. “This tool could help prepare for such scenarios.”
INL researchers teamed up with colleagues from six other national laboratories to address other challenges brought on by the pandemic.
One project is investigating an alternative way of delivering oxygen to patients using liquid ventilation. This technique involves pulsing a liquid form of synthetic chemicals in and out of the lungs. These chemicals are nontoxic in the human body. They can carry oxygen into the lungs and remove water, mucus and carbon dioxide. As they exit the body, these carriers are “scrubbed clean,” reoxygenated and then recirculated back into the patient.
“Liquid ventilation could be transformative, resulting in better respiratory therapy and improving recovery rates,” O’Brien said. “It will be useful for treating other respiratory diseases as well as COVID-19.”
Another concern to health care workers who treat COVID-19 patients on ventilators is the need for frequent filter replacement. The virus generates lots of mucus, which clogs the heat filters hospitals use to sterilize the exhaled air. Consequently, health care workers spend up to 15 minutes daily, per patient, replacing filters. All that time adds up, and the process increases their exposure to the virus.
INL researchers investigated alternative forms of sterilization. They have built a prototype that uses a type of plasma, which is a gaseous mix of ions, free oxygen radicals, and free electrons. Scientists have discovered that this electron gas mixture can inactivate bacteria, fungi and viruses, and the INL researchers quickly assembled their model from off-the-shelf parts.
The researchers then designed the system so that it could be easily plugged into a ventilator. Collaborating with a researcher at Idaho State University, INL tested its sterilizer to see that it was wiping out the virus as intended.
“When the patient’s done needing it, you take the sterilizer chamber off, and you throw it in the trash,” said INL researcher Andrew Beasley. “It will reduce the workload and health risks at the same time.”
The INL scientists designed, manufactured and tested the sterilizer in a matter of months, and it can now be handed over to a medical equipment company to produce the final product. “We have shaved one or two years off the development time of a piece of medical equipment,” Beasley said. “We just wanted it working as fast as possible, so we could get it to patients in critical care.”
This project was funded by INL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.
CONNECTING FOR CONSENSUS
As the virus surged, Jayne Morrow, an INL joint appointee and assistant vice president of Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education at Montana State University, collaborated with researchers in academia, the national labs and industry to establish the CLEAN 2020 Summit. The event was held virtually on five separate days from August to December 2020, with support from the Sloan Foundation.
The summit identified steps that could be taken to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 indoors and identified where investments needed to be made to understand more about virus transmission in buildings. Acting on one recommendation to come out of CLEAN 2020, INL has been investigating how to refurbish and create a test facility where researchers can simulate the movement of COVID-19-like particles in an office environment.
“The transmission of COVID-19 is taking place in buildings, and there’s a fundamental lack of understanding about how airborne viruses are transmitted in the built environment,” McLing said.
A MODEL FOR THE FUTURE
Building on the proven value of CLEAN 2020 and the ongoing conversations and collaborations between the researchers involved, the effort’s steering committee plans to continue the forum in the form of a new organization. The researchers’ goal moving forward is not solely to inform a science-based response to the pandemic, but also to create an interdisciplinary infrastructure to address other disease outbreaks in the future.
In a similar vein, the NVBL demonstrates what is possible when the expertise and capabilities of all the national labs work in tandem. “Given that it has worked out so well, there is the potential for the NVBL construct to serve as a model for future emergency responses,” Walck said.
O’Brien believes that the collaboration of the national labs – the whole – has yielded greater achievements than the sum of its parts.
“It has been a case of lots of brilliant people working together and working really hard through the uncertainty of the pandemic,” O’Brien said. “It’s not just important now, but will be important for the next pandemic, or disease, that we see.”