Sandia National Laboratories COVID-19-related research

May 8, 2020

Media contact: Kristen Meub, klmeub@sandia.gov, 505-239-1671.

Sandia National Laboratories has more than 50 COVID-related science and engineering projects that are designed to help the nation during the pandemic. These projects use research and development in engineering, biological sciences, high-performance computing and computer modeling, materials science, nanoscience, technology transfer and other disciplines. Much of the research is supported by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research & Development program.

» View recent Sandia COVID-19 news

Combining computing, data-analytics accelerates pace of COVID-19 research

To accelerate the ability to reliably locate reliable COVID-19 research results among all coronavirus studies, algorithms can be applied to existing research to quickly sort, batch and index COVID-19 data for biomedical, public health and other experts. Sandia Labs is investigating boosting rapid-response data science through compression-based analytics that sort relevant existing material to reveal pertinent data. Health experts can benefit from data science research without being data scientists themselves. This new process will clarify questions our biomedical and public health experts need answered to fast-track future COVID-19 research.

Providing technical know-how to distillery to produce hand sanitizer

New Mexico’s Wayward Sons Craft-Distillery in Santa Fe reconfigured its operations to produce a hand sanitizer called Elbow Bump. The distillery approached Sandia Labs to test the hand sanitizer developed to help with the current severe product shortages. Labs researchers provided technical consulting and resources to help the company determine if the product can be scaled up to large quantities while maintaining its effectiveness. The partnership with the distillery and Sandia was established through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance program that pairs Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories with small businesses facing technical challenges. The program provides access to labs expertise and capabilities at no cost to the business.

Computer modeling to understand, track and prepare for COVID-19

Forecasting COVID 19

Sandia is working to develop a statistical method for the real-time characterization of partially observed epidemics. Observations consist of daily counts, culled from open-source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, of symptomatic patients diagnosed with COVID-19. The data are being used to estimate epidemiological model parameters to provide short-term forecasts of the ongoing epidemic, as well as to provide some information for the time-dependent infection rate. Such forecasts can be used to estimate the demand for medical resources and other governmental needs.

Pandemic modeling and analysis

Sandia Labs is collaborating with Argonne, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos national laboratories to develop an integrated monitoring, modeling and analysis capability to track COVID-19 pandemic surges and their risks. The work is informing U.S. policymakers of anticipated needs for medical resources, the economic impacts associated with policy decisions, possible technological interventions and, ultimately, how to undo social distancing and other restrictions in a sensible way that keeps the nation physically and economically healthy.

Enabling local modeling of COVID-19

National models of COVID-19’s spread may be of limited use to state and local planners because the models generally average population data instead of considering the distinctive character of smaller regions. Sandia Labs researchers are using regional data provided by the State of New Mexico to determine the most effective regional distribution of medical supplies and resources and where pop-up testing centers would be best located. Sandia researchers have applied these techniques to other states and localities across the United States.

High-Performance Computing Consortium

Sandia’s Solo high-performance computing system has been made available to users through the

COVID-19 High-Performance Computing Consortium. COVID-related projects selected for study by the consortium and allocated to Solo will receive the highest priority on this system, which is designed specifically for external collaborations. Consortium projects that are complementary to ongoing Sandia COVID-19 projects bring the possibility of broader research collaborations.

Characterizing how virus droplets spread

Applying Sandia National Laboratories experience in computational simulation, fluid dynamics and physics to help understand how COVID-19 is transmitted, researchers are investigating the lifespan and travels of liquid droplets expelled when a person coughs or sneezes. Initial simulations have shown that while precautions — plexiglass partitions in grocery stores, for example — offer protection from larger droplets, very tiny particles, called droplet nuclei, can persist in the air for an extended time, cluster and travel some distance depending on environmental conditions. While Sandia’s simulation capability can calculate possible exposures to droplets within complex environments like hospitals, office buildings and grocery stores, we do not estimate the viability or frequency of viruses within the droplets.  The research team is seeking to partner with pathogen-viability experts to help determine how droplet lifespan and movements might affect COVID-19 transmission.

Testing for COVID-19

Sandia tests its workforce, employees from other DOE entities for COVID-19 Infection

To protect mission-essential functions, keep our workface safe and help reduce the spread of COVID-19 at Sandia facilities, Sandia became the first Department of Energy lab on April 7 to start testing its workforce for COVID-19 infection. Starting next week, we will extend our testing capability to DOE and NNSA employees in Albuquerque and to members of workforce at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. By converting several biological research labs, Sandia now has the capacity to test hundreds of samples each day. Lab operations follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New Mexico Department of Health guidelines for handling COVID-19 samples to protect lab workers, others and the facility.

Portable, 20-minute COVID-19 diagnostic system development

Researchers at Sandia are developing a novel approach to viral detection focusing on a simplified workflow and low-cost portable instrumentation that could be controlled by a smartphone. Sandia’s previous research with Zika indicated that, using Sandia’s “QUASR” assay chemistry, viral RNA can be detected directly from clinical matrices with no sample preparation, in other words without RNA extraction, which is the most time- and labor-intensive step in standard laboratory diagnostic protocols. We are applying this novel detection scheme for rapid, portable detection of SARS-CoV-2 of both clinical and environmental samples.

Rapid Point-of-Care Serological Tests

As a complement to direct detection of viral RNA, we are developing a panel of immunoassays enabling detection of viral antigens (Ags) and anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies (Abs) produced by the host in response to infection. These immunoassays will be implemented Sandia’s portable SpinDx platform, which also offers rapid detection without need for sample preparation. Direct detection of viral RNA via QUASR RT-LAMP, combined with detection of host response to infection via SpinDx immunoassay, will be a powerful way to diagnose COVID-19 at all stages of disease. Moreover, this combination of assay types would enable us to both positively identify SARS-CoV-2 and rule out influenza or other coronaviruses.

Manufacturing R&D for personal protective equipment, supplies

Engineering, technology to help when critical equipment is in short supply

Sandia Labs has joined a coalition of national labs aiming to help ensure the nation has access to

COVID-19 medical supplies. The coordinated effort is using innovative engineering and technology, such as 3D printing to bridge supply-chain gaps in masks, ventilators and one-time use supplies, such as testing swabs. Examples of this effort are Sandia’s method of converting hospital-grade BiPAP machines into ventilators and the labs’ help in assessing new decontamination processes to enable the reuse of N95 masks. With an eye to the future, the coalition is focusing on long-term solutions that could be applied broadly if the pandemic lasts longer than anticipated or returns in the future.

Converting respiratory machines into ventilators for hospitals

To help New Mexico hospitals, Sandia has developed a kit that will convert BiPAP respiratory machines that are already on hand into machines that can be used as ventilators to help treat patients with severe cases of COVID-19. Non-invasive ventilators, BiPAPs and CPAPs, cannot currently be used to treat patients with COVID-19 because they expel a patient’s breath into the room, contaminating the area with virus droplets and putting medical staff at risk of exposure. Sandia developed a system using ultraviolet light to ensure that COVID-19 and other pathogens are eliminated before the expelled air is circulated back into the hospital room. Sandia produced 100 systems for New Mexico hospitals and is working to make the systems more broadly available through a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement partner.

Decontamination research to improve sanitation and PPE

Testing masks decontamination methods

A Sandia National Labs multidisciplinary team, including researchers in thermal, fluid and aero sciences, radiation effects and aerosol sciences, are collaborating with the University of New Mexico to study the impact of repeated decontamination cycles on N95 masks’ respirator filtration, fit and mechanical integrity. The team seeks to understand degradation mechanisms and explore differences due to make and model of the respirators and decontamination methods. The team will assess chemical methods, such as a hydrogen-peroxide vapor method being used by UNM Hospital, as well as thermal and gamma sterilization techniques. Sandia’s technical breadth and experimental capabilities, including the Gamma Irradiation Facility and aerosol testing labs, will enable this project to support hospitals’ efforts to address shortages in critical personal protective equipment.

Sterilizing personal protective equipment with ionizing radiation

During the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals must make sure workers have enough personal protective equipment, whether that means trying to buy more, make more, clean it or wear it for longer than usual. Ionizing radiation is already used to sterilize medical equipment and supplies, but not used personal protective equipment. A team of researchers at Sandia used the Gamma Irradiation Facility to sterilize several types of N95 masks with gamma radiation and test how different doses affected the integrity and efficacy of the masks. The team is working to share their results publicly and is pursuing a partnership with a local business. The team plans to test how other types of personal protective equipment hold up to gamma radiation sterilization. Sandia uses the Gamma Irradiation Facility for

high-fidelity simulation of nuclear radiation environments to test materials and components.

Spray-on coating could give resilient protection against COVID-19

Sandia scientists are designing an antimicrobial polymer coating expected to provide long-lasting disinfection properties from a spray. The discreet, see-through coating could be applied to commonly touched surfaces, such as certain personal protective equipment or doorknobs, to make them effectively self-cleaning. At the molecular level, the polymer has needle-like structures that destroy viruses and certain bacteria on contact. Ongoing biological studies at Sandia are examining the effectiveness of this material and what effects the spray has on common protective equipment.

Studying viability sterilizing masks with supercritical carbon dioxide

Researchers at Sandia Labs are testing the use of supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) to safely and reliably sterilize N95 masks and other critical medical supplies for reuse by health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many conventional sterilization methods cannot be used because they degrade mask performance. Supercritical CO2 is a solvent with the ability to penetrate microporous materials without leaving residue and alleviates the need to use harsher, more hazardous chemicals for sterilization. Supercritical CO2 cleaning equipment is becoming increasingly popular as an eco-friendly alternative in the dry-cleaning industry and, if deemed an appropriate and effective solution, could be rapidly deployed at wide scale.

Bioscience focused on COVID-19 treatment, vaccines

Tailorable antiviral

Sandia is working on creating a deployable antiviral countermeasure for COVID-19 using CRISPR-based technology. Once the research is complete, the antiviral will be able to be customized to respond to many different viruses, including coronavirus. The team is conducting proof-of-concept trials now. The goal of this research is to find new, “reloadable” countermeasures for viral outbreaks that do not have to be re-invented every time. Once the research is complete, the antiviral will be able to be customized to respond to many different viruses, including coronavirus. This project is funded by the Department of Defense through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Sequencing the coronavirus

This Sandia Labs project makes it easier for researchers to catalog the more than 150 variations of the SARS2 genome that is responsible for COVID-19. For SARS2 proteins, such as the spike protein that makes contact with mammalian cells, these sequence variants can be tracked so that biologists can adapt countermeasures to deal with the changes. We also are tracking whether sequence changes might affect the diagnostic tests used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others.

Infection prevention through natural product molecules

Certain molecules found in nature might have the potential to prevent COVID-19 infection. The molecules work by blocking the ACE2 protein, which is where the virus binds to cells in human airways to replicate. Sandia will help guide the direction of therapeutic development for the novel coronavirus by examining the effects of four natural compounds on viruses and human cells.

Economic support during pandemic

Assessing materials for respirator production

Sandia is helping New Mexico companies working to manufacture respirators for medical personnel in response to shortages. N95 respirators filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, protecting the wearer from exposure. Sandia is assessing the performance of new materials for companies by testing against traditional N95 respirators using research and development filtration systems modified to mimic industry certification standards for N95 respirator performance. Technical assistance is provided through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program that pairs Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories with small companies that need help solving technical challenges.

Rapid transfer of technology to the marketplace

Sandia has a new, fast-track licensing program to rapidly deploy technology to a marketplace reeling from the effects of COVID-19. The program is designed to support businesses facing widespread, often technical challenges resulting from the pandemic. Under the program, more than 1,000 Sandia-patented technologies — 70% of Sandia’s intellectual property portfolio — are temporarily eligible for any U.S. person to use commercially for free.