Inside the secret DHS lab testing how long coronavirus can survive on shopping carts and in sunlight

The scientists have been working 15 hours a day, seven days a week trying to crack the COVID-19 code.

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By Michael Kosnar

For scientists working at the Department of Homeland Security’s biodefense research laboratory, the directive from senior agency officials was unprecedented: drop everything and focus on one target, the coronavirus.

As the number of positive cases in the United States tops 1.2 million and deaths exceed 70,000, those scientists have been working 15 hours a day, seven days a week trying to crack the COVID-19 code.

“This is the most urgent thing we have worked on since 9/11,” said Lloyd Hough, a senior official and biology expert with Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate.

The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, or NBACC, was created and built by the department as a federal response to anthrax letter attacks in 2001.

Located on the sprawling biodefense campus at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, an hour outside Washington, D.C., the NBACC was the first national laboratory created by Homeland Security. Two centers are housed in the 160,000 square foot facility: the National Bioforensic Analysis Center which provides law enforcement with forensic testing on suspected bio threat samples such as anthrax and ricin, and the National Biological Threat Characterization Center, which conducts experiments and studies on biological hazards like the coronavirus.

Scanning electron micrograph of the surface of a Vero cell (green) with SARS CoV-2 on the cell surface (purple).Department of Homeland Security

The NBACC has a biosafety level 4 accreditation allowing scientists at the facility to perform research on the deadliest of pathogens, those for which no vaccine or treatment exists. It’s one of only seven such facilities in the country.

BSL-4 is the highest biosafety laboratory containment level, employing precautions such as dedicated airflow systems, positive pressure suits, layered gloves, and extensive personnel training to prevent exposure to or the spread of highly dangerous and infectious microbes including Marburg, Ebola and Lassa viruses, smallpox and the plague.

Security at the facility is so tight that when an NBC News team recently visited the lab, officials said it was the first time in 10 years that cameras were allowed through the front doors and even then, the crew was not allowed to go beyond the front lobby.

“I would think that staff working here in the lab, they're probably better protected against the virus than the people walking around out in public who are exposed to the virus without any protection,” said Paul Dabisch, a senior research scientist who is leading the coronavirus study at the facility.

Dabisch sat down for an exclusive interview and gave a detailed look at how the lab works.

The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center at Fort Detrick, Md.Department of Homeland Security

Dozens of staff comprise multiple teams investigating different characteristics of the coronavirus, in the hopes of quickly learning more about its survivability and the transmission of the disease, both on common surfaces and in the air. Unlike other viruses, little was known about the emerging coronavirus when the pandemic broke out.

The lab received its first sample of the pathogen from a national repository which obtained the isolate or culture from a case in Washington state that in February became the first confirmed coronavirus-related death in the United States. Researchers have since acquired other samples from around the world with the intent of finding out whether the biological makeup of the virus has changed as it's circled the globe.

Their work is guided by a “master question list” intended to quickly summarize what is known about the virus, what additional information is needed, and which other research entities across the country are working to answer those questions. The list includes questions such as “how much agent will make a healthy individual ill?”, “how does it spread from one host to another?” and “how long after infection do symptoms appear?” Each question is updated in a weekly report with two sections: “What do we know?” and “What do we need to know?”

The approach is modeled after similar work undertaken in 2015 in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Preliminary results from the lab’s testing were first revealed by William Bryan, the acting undersecretary for science and technology at Homeland Security, during a White House coronavirus press briefing two weeks ago. But shortly after Bryan mentioned how disinfectants can play a role in killing the coronavirus, President Donald Trump suggested that scientists test whether disinfectants, such as bleach, could be injected into the human body to fight the virus. The White House later said the comments had been taken out of context and Trump himself said he’d been speaking sarcastically, although there was no indication when he made the comment that he wasn’t serious about the recommendation.

Transmission electron micrograph of a section of a Vero cell (grey) with SARS CoV-2 (blue capsid, yellow surface proteins, inside a vesicle (green).Department of Homeland Security

Regardless, the intense backlash and ridicule of the president overshadowed Bryan’s remarks. Doctors and other health officials railed against Trump’s musing about injecting disinfectants into people. The comments also prompted warnings from the makers of commercial disinfectants.

What got lost in the message was what Bryan referred to as the “most striking observation to date,” that ultraviolet rays from the sun may have a powerful effect on the virus.

“What we have found so far is that sunlight seems to be very detrimental to the virus,” Dabisch explained. “And so within minutes, the majority of the virus is inactivated on surfaces and in the air in direct sunlight.”

Scientists say that could have a profound effect on eradicating the virus on everyday items such as shopping carts, playground equipment and outdoor furniture.

“Our preliminary results say, yes, that the sunlight on plastic will inactivate the virus very quickly. And so we're hopeful that that is the case,” Dabisch said.

On a recent day, staffers were looking at such mundane items as the plastic on computer keyboards and mouses, items that people come in contact with on a routine basis.

Testing has also revealed that higher temperatures and humidity may also help kill the virus and reduce its transmission.

In order to replicate different climates from around the country, the lab uses several environmentally controlled chambers -- it’s the only lab in the country with this capability. It allows researchers to measure the potential survivability of the virus in different regions across the U.S., mimicking the typical levels of sunlight, temperatures and humidity.

In addition to measuring the virus’s longevity on surfaces, those chambers are used to analyze how COVID-19 is transmitted through the air and how long it can survive in the form of small particles known as aerosols. That would have an effect on spread at nursing homes, hospitals, meatpacking plants, schools and prisons, where people are in close proximity.

The Homeland Security lab has made at least one critical discovery about the aerosol configuration of the virus: that the size of saliva droplets generated by an infected individual through talking, coughing or sneezing has no bearing on contagiousness. Droplets smaller than a human hair can be lethal.

“We're most concerned about the really small droplets that you can't see because those are the ones that get down deep into your lung and for most infectious agents, that's when you get the worst possible infection,” according to Hough. “Those could be deadly.”

Another revelation: common disinfectants found in the home such as isopropyl alcohol and bleach can in some cases destroy the virus within seconds. But while the practical applications of that find are widespread, scientists at the NBACC have a specific purpose in mind: they are desperate to find different decontamination methods for personal protective equipment like N95 masks so the equipment can be reused if necessary. Extending the lifespan of PPE could be crucial in hard-hit areas of the country.

Dabisch said the main goal of the study is to learn the most possible about transmission routes for the virus and then use that data to assess the risks of performing activities in our everyday lives. He said that information can then be shared with policymakers, public health officials and front-line doctors and nurses to make informed decisions on how to combat the spread of COVID-19, and ultimately save lives.

As the death toll continues to mount, so does the pressure on scientists to solve the riddle of the coronavirus.

“It's very great,” Dabisch admitted. “We are working around the clock because of that to try to answer questions that we're being asked about this virus, and hopefully those results can help to inform our response to this and we know the clock is ticking on this.”

Tom Costello contributed.