Applying Lessons Learned to Better Target Biological Threat Vulnerabilities

Dr. Lloyd Hough
Technical Lead, Biological Threat Characterization
Hazard Awareness & Characterization Technology Center (HAC-TC)
Science & Technology Directorate (S&T)
U.S. Department of Homeland Security

From S&B and CST/CBRNE, Fall 2020

Dr. Lloyd P. Hough is the Lead for the Hazard Awareness & Characterization Technology Center (HAC-TC) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), and a microbiologist responsible for technical direction of the Biological Threat Characterization efforts under the Probabilistic Analysis of National Threats, Hazards, and Risks (PANTHR) Program. The mission of the HAC-TC is to provide DHS/S&T with core chemical, biological, and explosive hazard awareness, characterization, and RDT&E capabilities to support the Department’s mission to prevent terrorism involving these materials. The Biological Threat Characterization Project (BTCP) is charged with conducting studies of biological threat agents and associated technology as defined in the National Biodefense Strategy and to support the needs of the Department and the broader Homeland Security Enterprise. To this end, the program sponsors defensive research studies of biological threat agents and technologies to fill critical gaps in our knowledge and understanding to improve the nation’s ability to assess the consequences and/or risk of a biological attack on the homeland, and to improve national preparedness for and resiliency to such an event.

Dr. Hough’s background is in the microbiology and molecular biology of pathogenic microorganisms. He received his Ph.D. in Microbiology with a specialty in Biotechnology from the Michigan State University in 1999. Since, Dr. Hough has spent more than 15 years supporting the U.S. biodefense community. Dr. Hough has supported or led laboratory-based research projects ranging from microbial forensics and environmental monitoring, to the research & development of biodetection systems, and to biomedical research to characterize the risks and hazards posed by biological threat agents. Dr. Hough was a Principal Investigator at the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), DHS’s national laboratory on Ft. Detrick in Frederick, MD. Dr. Hough also has experience conducting and preparing technical assessments of international research publications on various topics for the biodefense community. Dr. Hough then came to DHS in 2013 to provide subject matter expertise and technical support to the Biological Threat Characterization Program as a contractor, and in 2016 he became a federal employee and assumed responsibility for the ~$20M/year program.

Dr. Lloyd Hough, Tech Lead, Bio Threat Characterization, S&T, U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, regarding National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), spoke recently with CST/CBRNE about usage of lessons learned to better react to present bio threats at home and globally.

CST/CBRNE: Provide some brief background on NBACC’s evolution to present and contingency for helping DHS address the current COVID-19 pandemic and other threats to the nation.

Dr. Hough: The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) was conceived in response to the anthrax attacks of 2001 where spores were sent in the mail to certain media outlets and government officials, and it serves two purposes: (1) provides a capability to forensically investigate and attribute biological crimes, and (2) to conduct defensive research that helps the nation prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from a bioterrorist attack on the United States. But the NBACC was also envisioned as a resource to support the national response to any event involving a biological agent, whether of natural or intentional origin.

Construction of the laboratory began in 2004, was completed in 2010, and began laboratory work with biological threats in 2011. In 2014, an outbreak of ebolavirus disease (EVD) began in West Africa, and Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) turned to the NBACC’s threat characterization research agenda to help. At the time we developed a Master Question List on Ebola, summarizing research from throughout the scientific community to understand what was known about the disease, and what was still needed to be known in order to respond.

We found gaps in our understanding of the stability of the virus in different body fluids outside the body, and in our understanding of the disinfectants that could be used to kill the ebolavirus.

After the Ebola outbreak subsided, NBACC began to return its attention to traditional agents of bioterrorism again. When SARS-CoV-2 began to arise, our attention focused on studying this new threat and supporting the national response, developing a new Master Question List, identifying similar gaps in knowledge on virus stability on surfaces and in the air, as well as effectiveness of disinfectants.

CST/CBRNE: With the advent of PANTHR to address Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats and Hazards, talk about some overlap with past studies such as SARS research that has enabled dovetailing to COVID-19.

Dr. Hough: DHS S&T and the NBACC had not conducted any research to understand the basic properties of SARS-CoV-1, the original SARS virus, or related viruses until after the discovery of SARS-CoV-2 was announced in January 2020. Because our primary mission is to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism, DHS S&T maintained awareness of SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV the scientific and technical reports published by other researchers. We had developed a Master Question List for MERS-CoV-2 that became the basis for the first version of the Master Question List for SARS-CoV-2.

CST/CBRNE: In terms of lab analysis of understood conditions for COVID-19 survival, what are some of the primary findings i.e. environment survival conditions and confirmed threat removal applications to date?

Dr. Hough: Briefly, we’ve found that temperature, humidity, and direct sunlight all have an impact on the natural decay of the virus in the environment. Generally speaking, in aerosolized droplets and droplets deposited on non-porous surfaces the SARS-CoV-2 virus is more stable at lower temperatures and lower humidity, and becomes less stable as the temperature and humidity increases. When the virus is suspended in a simulated saliva or simulated lung fluid and is deposited on a non-porous surface the half-life – the time required for half of a population of individual virions to lose their ability to infect cells – is about 15 hours at 70 degrees F and 20% humidity and about 2 hours at 95 degrees F and 60 percent humidity. If that surface is moved into direct sunlight (i.e., not filtered through a window or obscured by clouds or trees, etc.), at an intensity that would be seen at solar noon on June 21st in the MidAtlantic region, the half life is reduced about 2 minutes, and at solar noon on December 21st, the half life is about 4 minutes with humidity and sunlight playing a much less important role.

In terms of mitigating the hazard, we’ve found that a number of EPA recommended disinfectants can effectively be used to disinfect surfaces, including 70% ethyl alcohol, 0.26% sodium hypochlorite (1/2 cup of concentrated bleach in a gallon of water), Lysol® Disinfectant Spray, and Peraspray RTU can effectively kill the virus in both wet and dried droplets of simulated saliva or simulated lung fluid.

CST/CBRNE: From a PPE perspective, what are some areas of concern has NBACC focused on in mitigating threats to users?

Dr. Hough: NBACC has not currently performed any work involving PPE, except for understanding the persistence of the virus on nitrile, the material that many disposable gloves are made of, and didn’t find any significant difference compared with the stability on stainless steel. However, DHS S&T has sponsored research to evaluate the ability to disinfect N95 face-filtering respirators (FFRs). Worn correctly, an N95 mask is an important piece of respiratory protective equipment that can protect the wearer from inhaling infectious virus. Unfortunately, the availability of N95 masks has been limited because of global demand, and while normally these would be single-use, disposable items, the available supply has needed to be used for extended periods of time or to disinfect them and reuse them.

NIOSH and FDA have identified and approved several methods to decontaminate N95 masks for health care professionals. Unfortunately, these methods are not easy to accomplish, nor cheap. Moist heat is one of the methods that was recommended by CDC as a last resort method for decontamination of certain models of N95 respirator to support reuse. To assist, DHS S&T sponsored studies to investigate low-cost means that might be used to decontaminate certain models of N95 respirators. The studies demonstrated that the moist heat produced by certain models of electric multi-cookers with a sous vide function that can maintain a temperature of 65 degrees C (149 degrees F) for 30 minutes, without exceeding 70 degrees C at any time, can effectively be used to kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus in saliva or lung fluid on certain models of N95 respirators. Moreover, the method allows these models of N95 masks to treated up to five times without visibly damaging the respirator, affecting its filtration efficiency, its breathing resistance, or the elasticity of the straps.

CST/CBRNE: How does DHS S&T see ongoing research enabling future early detection and control potential on a national level?

Dr. Hough: DHS S&T supports response efforts to biological threats through science-based understanding of the hazards that face the nation and the world. By identifying those biological threat agents that represent the greatest risk through laboratory study, NBACC supports other DHS S&T efforts focused on developing and deploying systems, policies and procedurtes that can mitigate those risks.

DHS S&T is also sponsoring investigation of other methods that may enable N95 masks to be decontaminated and reused.