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Fighting the next outbreak before it starts

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

J. Patrick Fitch, Ph.D., is the associate laboratory director for Chemical, Earth, and Life Sciences at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and also leads Los Alamos’ Special Office for COVID-19 Research and Development. Kirsten Taylor-McCabe, Ph.D., is the program manager for National Security and Defense, and Intelligence and Emerging Threats at Los Alamos National Laboratory. A version of this article first appeared in Homeland Security Today.

COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic and it certainly won’t be the last. As the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic is in sight, now is the time to take stock of what we’ve learned over the past 12 months – and prepare for the future. Specifically, the past year has taught us that an effective response against a disease outbreak depends on timely integration of expertise and data across academia, industry and government. As we move forward, we must continue to foster this integration and our capabilities so we can effectively respond to future threats.

For any disease outbreak, there are two well-understood sides of the response: research and development (which looks closely at the disease to determine its origins, how it spreads, pharmaceutical interventions, etc.) and operations (which includes determining and communicating decisions, distributing test kits, personal protective equipment and vaccines, etc.). But there is an important part of the scientific response between these two pieces that is often overlooked: evaluation and translation to actionable knowledge and market-ready products.

When COVID-19 hit, the Department of Energy put the technical power of the national laboratories to work as an integrated National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory through funding from the CARES Act to impact manufacturing, epidemiological planning, testing and molecular therapeutic R&D.

At Los Alamos, we were called on to answer difficult science questions, from the efficacy of different testing methods, to how aerosols are dispersed in different environments, to forecasting the spread of the virus. Our expertise in bioassay, fluid dynamics and agent-based computer modeling enabled us to quickly pivot our focus to answer those questions. We have also answered questions about how to best store and transport testing kits, how the variants mutate, how different mitigation strategies impact school reopenings and how to prioritize certain populations for vaccination to maximize the benefits. We continue to answer these questions and others.

Part of the reason Los Alamos was called on to answer these questions is that our supercomputing power allows us to develop models that forecast disease transmission rates and predict outcomes based on various mitigation strategies.

In addition to supercomputers, the national labs were called on for their diverse expertise in a broad range of scientific fields. For example, our expertise in weapons fluid dynamics provided insights into developing better ventilators to treat critical COVID-19 patients. And plume modeling that stems from our work mapping the travel path of potentially harmful gases and chemicals was used to understand how COVID-19 droplet plumes travel.

The result of all these endeavors was a host of tools and knowledge that decision-makers could use at the state and national level to address the challenges of COVID-19 head-on. But, in order to effectively tackle the next challenge the nation may face, it is important to establish a consistent pipeline that integrates the expertise of academia, industry and government to provide decision-makers with the scientific answers they need before and during a crisis.

Now is the time, while interest and momentum are high, to take the steps to ensure that we establish a bridge between the R&D effort and the operational one so we can effectively answer the quick-turnaround technical questions when – not if – the next outbreak lands on American shores.

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