Battelle Biosecurity Expert to Discuss Pandemics at Columbus Science Pub
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with most events and large gatherings cancelled, Columbus Science Pub has soldiered on with an all-virtual format. Instead of going to a bar on a Thursday night, says Rob Evans, now it’s about, “sitting at your computer with your beverage of choice tuning in to a science webinar.”
According to Evans, co-organizer of Columbus Science Pub and education communications manager at Battelle, though the monthly STEM gathering has continued virtually during the crisis, Thursday’s science pub will be the first event focusing directly on COVID-19 and pandemic science. Neeraj Rao, biosecurity expert and Evans’ colleague at Battelle, will speak at the online event about how Battelle is responding to COVID-19 and how scientists and society can prepare for future pandemics.
Rao’s work for Battelle has largely focused on biosecurity, especially screening synthetic biological technology for potentially dangerous genes. When the deadly Coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2 appeared in the U.S. earlier this year, Rao and most of Battelle had to shift their attention to the disease.
One of the more notable projects Battelle has undertaken in response to the Coronavirus pandemic is the decontamination of N95 masks for healthcare workers, which the institute originally developed in anticipation of a disease like COVID-19.
“We had that technology and it kind of sat on the shelf,” said Rao. “Then four or five years later we had the opportunity to deploy that technology. That was, and it still is, a massive effort across Battelle to scale up those systems, deploy them to  locations around the U.S.”
Rao plans to discuss the mask decontamination program on Thursday, as well as other Battelle operations focused on COVID-19, including vaccine development and studies into how long the virus can survive on frequently shared surfaces, such as library books. Rao will also talk about lessons the world must learn from this pandemic so that a disaster like COVID-19 never occurs again.
“What we’re going through now highlights the need, of course, for more of the preventative tools,” said Rao. “We’ve seen a lot of the limitations that we have in the ability to deploy tests, to just, do people have it or not?”
Rao said there must also be developments in how we monitor emerging pathogens and investigate just how dangerous they are.
“I mean, that was a big difference this time around,” said Rao. “SARS-CoV-2 was far more transmissible. There were also the issues that asymptomatic people seem to be transmitting it…with the original SARS, it typically wasn’t until someone was very symptomatic that they were then shedding a lot of virus particles, so that helped slow the spread.”
“If we can characterize it early on, first catch it and then characterize it quickly, that helps you respond accordingly,” said Rao. “We’ve seen in this pandemic, every hour counts.”
Rao said the scientific community mobilized relatively quickly in its response to this pandemic, collaborating and sharing information across countries and industries. One thing Rao wants Science Pub participants to learn is how much work is being done “behind the scenes” to study and slow the spread of COVID-19.
“This is how we can learn from it, so that the next time something happens, you either never know about it—which would be great—or if you do, that it is handled quickly and efficiently so that it doesn’t disrupt our life the way this pandemic has,” said Rao.
Columbus Science Pub’s “Planning for Pandemics with Neeraj Rao” will be held virtually at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 3.