UPDATED: Department of Energy’s biological research and development team brief House committee on coronavirus research

Mary Maxon of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory briefs House committee on COVID-19 research 

By Sophia Solano

Members of the Department of Energy’s biological research and development team briefed a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee Sept. 11 on scientific progress since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, making the case for continued financial support to the program. 

Members of the Biological and Environmental Research Department (BER) at the Department of Energy, which was granted $31.7 billion in 2020, argued that they required additional budget increases to continue their work in COVID-19 and climate- change research.

The BER has made significant strides in pandemic research since the onset of the coronavirus in March, working to understand the origins of the virus, find treatments quickly, develop biomanufacturing processes for new therapeutics and determine agents for viral infection. They are also working to address supply chain bottlenecks in necessary tools and treatments like personal protection equipment, according to Mary Maxon, associate director for biosciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

“During all the challenges and uncertainties of this pandemic, one thing is certain: our science community has gone above and beyond in the effort to understand, treat, and prevent COVID-19,” said Representative Frank Lucas, R-OK, ranking member of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. 

Maxon spoke on her team’s groundbreaking work in understanding the biological development of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the coronavirus illness. 

Usage of the world’s fastest computers has enabled the BER to rapidly direct their attention to the national and global threat of COVID 19. The DOE capabilities include biology resources that have allowed them to analyze the genomes from human lung samples of people with coronavirus and control samples. 

“When the virus infects the cell, it goes through a process of creating a replication center, using machinery of the host cell to create more pieces of the virus to then be released and infect other cells,” said Maxon.

At the onset of the pandemic, the DOE created an organization of 17 national laboratories to work together in understanding and combating the coronavirus pandemic. The DOE created a consortium of supercomputing that has put together a virtual library of every known chemical on earth — about 5 billion in total. The computers can conduct machine learning and artificial intelligence to look at how these compounds bind to targets. They create a list of the top 1,000 potential compounds which are then tested in national laboratories, said Glenn Randall, University of Chicago microbiology committee chair. These compounds are then tested for potential medicinal purposes to combat coronavirus.

“I think that kind of cooperation and collaboration is absolutely essential,” said Jim Baird, R-IN, member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “This basic research is really critical, especially in times like this pandemic.”

Committee members, including Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-TX, expressed concerns about national security in laboratories, especially given that many laboratory employees are now teleworking due to pandemic regulations and a competitive international scientific environment. Yet members of the BER said that new precautions have been put into place, including updated security systems, to keep laboratories secure from attack.

 “We definitely take very seriously the export controls to make sure that our research stays our research,” said Maxon. “We are looking very carefully at our foreign visitors’ processes to make sure we know who’s coming onto our lab and what they’re there to do.”

Because of climate change and potential viral migration, more pandemics are likely to occur in the next 100 years, according to the BER. They argued that continued funding to the program is necessary in stopping these pandemics before they occur, and to treat them if they are to prevail. Researchers studied the past two coronavirus pandemics to look at how the proteins in the virus are structured. Maxon said this expedited how fast they could look for the characteristics of the virus in the current pandemic.

“There is a history of briefly investing during an emergency and then forgetting. As we look at what works and what doesn’t work in our response to the current pandemic, we can apply that to the next one,” said Randall. 

Members of the BER also argued that they need additional and continued funding after the COVID-19 crisis ends to help understand and combat the effects of climate change. Many scientists are currently studying renewable bioresources that can create cleaner waste, but they say they do not have the resources available to conduct this research. Research funding to curb the effects of global warming can prevent pandemics in the future. Members of the BER said that they need this funding to make their findings widely available and to create commercially available medications.

“That piece, being able to take a laboratory concept and making it commercially scaled, that’s the gap that is seriously missing and we could use some help,” said Maxon.  

Though members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology offered their gratitude, they made no promises about additional funding to the programs, during or beyond efforts to combat the pandemic. They said they would take the BER’s work into consideration for next year’s budget.

“We certainly appreciate the work they do to keep us on the forefront of science,” said Michael Cloud, R-Texas, “especially given the competitive global environment we’re in. It is important for the United States to stay on these technologies and advancements in science.”

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