Environmental Effects on Viable Virus Transport in Ventilation Airflow at High Risk Facilities
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Meat processing plants have become hotbeds for the transmission of COVID-19 in the United States. Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in meat processing facilities provide a means of transporting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In addition, these ventilation systems facilitate the deposition of virus particles onto surfaces where they can survive and remain infectious for days. Despite a recent flurry of investigations, the spread of COVID-19 via aerosol dispersion and inhalation in processing plants remains poorly understood. The goals of this research are to advance our fundamental understanding of the spread of viruses-laden aerosols in processing plants and use this knowledge to mitigate the transmission and spread of SARS-CoV-2. To achieve this goal, researchers will use bovine corona virus, a surrogate for SARS-CoV-2, to: i) investigate virus aerosolization, transport, and deposition inside a model test chamber designed to simulate conditions in the meat processing plant; and ii) perform computational modeling of virus particle transport to predict behavior in the ventilation system. Successful completion of this project will benefit society through the development of new knowledge to understand and mitigate the transmission and spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in meat processing plants, thus protecting a vital part of the Nation?s food supply. Further benefits to society will be achieved through student education, training, and public outreach including the recruitment and mentoring of students from underrepresented groups, and training for teachers, industrial and medical collaborators, and other stakeholders. Meat processing plants have been especially hard hit by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Although we know that conditions in these plants including low temperature, high humidity, and high airflow rate can facilitate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, the relative importance of these environmental factors on virus transmission and infectivity in meat processing plants remain poorly understood. The overarching goal of this project is to advance our fundamental understanding of virus aerosolization, transport, dispersion, and infectivity in meat processing plants. To achieve this goal, researchers will carry out an integrated experimental and computational modeling research program using bovine corona virus (BCoV) as a surrogate for SARS-CoV-2. Experiments will be conducted in a temperature- and humidity-controlled BSL-2 chamber equipped to track the size and distribution of virus aerosols using particle tracking velocimetry. During the experiments, the surfaces inside the test chamber will be sampled at regular time intervals to quantify the number and viability of BCoV particles using cell culture techniques and quantitative PCR. Researchers will utilize ANSYS Fluent software to model the airflow pattern in the test chamber to determine the effect of ventilation on the entrainment and spread of BCoV aerosols. Finally, researchers will conduct field tests at two large beef processing pants to validate and apply the project findings. Successful completion of this project has potential for transformative impact through the development of new knowledge and tools to predict and mitigate the transport, dispersion, and infectivity of viruses in meat processing plants. This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.