How New Mexico's national labs joined the COVID-19 fight

By:  Jens Gould and Scott Wyland

When the new coronavirus outbreak began, Sandia National Laboratories called on its scientists and engineers to pitch ideas on how they could help.

“They asked the whole lab — just as an open call — ‘Who’s got ideas on how we can help?’ ” said Ryan Haggerty, who oversees engineering programs at Sandia.

Hundreds of submissions came in; the lab funded dozens of them, and now it has 50 individual projects, many aimed at helping New Mexico survive an expected surge in cases.

Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory are undertaking a wide array of initiatives aimed at helping the state and nation cope with the unprecedented health crisis. They include computer modeling to predict a surge, boosting key medical supplies, testing people for COVID-19 and even hunting for a vaccine.

“Much of the focus of Sandia’s effort was, ‘How can we handle the peak crisis?’ ” said Gilbert Herrera, a laboratory fellow in charge of coordinating Sandia’s technical response to COVID-19. “When we get to peak cases and hospitals are packed, we really focused on what are the things Sandia can do to help ameliorate the state’s situation.”

One of those efforts yielded results Tuesday, when Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., announced that the Department of Energy granted Sandia approval to start analyzing testing samples given by members of the public for COVID-19. The lab had already developed the ability to test its own employees.

“This approval for Sandia National Labs is a critical step forward in ramping up testing capabilities in our state,” said Heinrich, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources who has urged the Trump administration to ramp up national labs’ involvement in the COVID-19 response. “It will greatly expand New Mexico’s ability to process test results on a daily basis.”

In some ways, these sorts of efforts at Sandia and Los Alamos have required an all-hands-on-deck approach in which some engineers lend their expertise in areas they’ve never worked before.

Sandia’s Haggerty is a case in point. While he has a Ph.D. in engineering, he jumped into a project that was new to him — an effort to develop a device that could increase the state’s supply of ventilators amid a potential shortage.

“We’re trying to solve this problem of — there’s a lot of big companies making ventilators that know how to do that, but those ventilators aren’t going to be available for months,” Haggerty said.

Two major Albuquerque hospitals — Presbyterian and University of New Mexico — told Sandia they had numerous so-called “non-invasive” ventilators such as machines used for treating sleep apnea.

The only problem was those machines, if used for COVID-19 care, would release the virus into the air when patients breathed out, jeopardizing health care staff and other patients.

So, Haggerty’s team of some 25 people — from electrical and mechanical engineers to biologists and atmospheric scientists — set out to create a module that could sterilize the air, allowing health care workers to safely convert the sleep apnea machines into ventilators for use by COVID-19 patients.

Now, a few weeks after they began, the team has produced 100 devices and is preparing to send them to hospitals around the state.

In order to get the green light, project ideas submitted by Sandia engineers had to fit several criteria.

The most important, perhaps, was speed. Projects had to be able to be finished in a matter of weeks so they could help the COVID-19 efforts in time for a surge.

Another key effort undertaken by Sandia and LANL is computer modeling that helps state officials predict the potential spread of the virus.

At LANL, some models draw data from past outbreaks such as SARS in 2003, while others look at how the number of infections changes over time, said Kirsten Taylor-McCabe, biochemist and national defense program manager at the lab.

Traditional models analyze affected populations — susceptible, exposed, infectious and recovered — while newer ones add factors such as age and at-risk conditions such as medical problems and poverty.

“The models can help determine the rate of spread … where hot spots are appearing and the impact of mitigations,” Taylor-McCabe said.

They also can help determine the number of people becoming ill at a certain time and how many people may be hospitalized, she added.

LANL also works with other national labs to develop integrated models that convey not only how COVID-19 might spread but its potential impacts on medical infrastructure and the economy, said Irene Qualters, the lab’s associate director of simulation and computation. These models can be applied regionally or nationally, she said.

The lab can tap into the Energy Department’s supercomputers to analyze huge data sets for modeling and simulations as well. The supercomputers are aiding efforts to devise an effective drug for COVID-19, partly by studying the coronavirus’s structure and dynamics, Qualters said.

Experts at both Sandia and LANL are involved in daily conference calls with state officials to discuss models that help them make decisions, such as what social-distancing measures to institute, where to open testing stations and how to best distribute equipment, according to Herrera.

“Information is presented to the governor, and they make decisions on it,” Herrera said.

The models also aid in national efforts, such as one that has helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency figure out methods of distributing personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, Herrera said.

Other projects at Sandia include developing antiviral treatments that can help health care workers safely reuse personal protective equipment amid a shortage. The lab is also testing filtering materials for Albuquerque-based medical manufacturer Marpac Inc., which aims to produce N95 respirators.

LANL is tackling the pandemic through the pursuit of a vaccine as well.

The lab’s vaccine research draws from its experience designing an HIV vaccine. It includes the groundbreaking work of the lab’s noted biologist Bette Korber.

Korber designed a “mosaic” vaccine composed of various HIV genomes, which recently underwent human trials. She is now on a team that’s pursuing a COVID-19 vaccine.

LANL not only wants to design a vaccine to combat COVID-19 but ones that can counter other coronavirus strains hiding in bats, pangolins and snakes to prevent future outbreaks, said Nicolas Hengartner, head of the lab’s theoretical biophysics group.