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  6. Episode 8: We Have to Prepare to Be Surprised

We Have to Prepare to Be Surprised

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Technologically Speaking. The Official S&T Podcast

Technologically Speaking host John Verrico sits down with Matthew Moe, Program Manager of the Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats Hazards and Risks, or PANTHR, program. Matthew recounts getting the call to study the virus that causes COVID-19, making discoveries about the effect of sunlight and ultraviolet on the disease, and sponsoring research to get answers quickly. Tune in to hear why Matthew considers himself the conductor to an orchestra of the nation’s leading scientists at the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, what it’s like to solve unforeseen problems at the intersection of public health and national security, and his journey to S&T to do the work he loves.

Run time: 29:04
Recorded on: June 28, 2022

Show Notes

Technologically Speaking Transcript: We Have to Prepare to Be Surprised
Guest: Matt Moe, Program Manager, Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats, Hazards and Risks
Host: John Verrico, Chief of Media & Community Relations

[00:00:00] Verrico: Hi, I'm John Verrico and I work for the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, or S&T as we call it. Join me and meet the science and technology experts on the front lines, keeping America safe. This is Technologically Speaking.

Hello, and welcome to Technologically Speaking. This is the official podcast of the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate where we do the science to help solve some of the biggest challenges in the homeland security mission. I'm John Verrico and I'm your host for today. And I've got a very special guest with me today, Mr. Matthew Moe, who is program manager of S&T's Probabilistic Analysis for National Threats, Hazards and Risks, otherly known as PANTHR.

[00:00:50] The government is crazy about acronyms. And we love acronyms. And a name like this, I'm really happy that we have an acronym, so we don't have to go around saying Probabilistic Analysis For National Threats, Hazards, and Risks.

[00:01:03] Verrico: Hello there, Matt and welcome. And what can you tell us all about PANTHR?

[00:01:10] Moe: Thank you very much for the opportunity. I'm excited to talk to you today. Oh man, where to start with PANTHR? Let's do a quick origin story if that's all right with you?

[00:01:17] Verrico: I was just gonna say. Where did this come from?

[00:01:20] Moe: So, we sort of have to roll back all the way to the founding of DHS in 2001. And homeland security was founded, not only on the 9-11 attacks, but also on the Amerithrax case, which if you don't remember, some individual mailed anthrax around the nation and that caused a, nationwide response. You know, unfortunately a few people, died, a few more people were sick. And we spent loads of money recovering from that incident. On the heels of that, when homeland security was stood up, one of the big questions for the policymaking community was, is Anthrax the only thing we need to be worried about or are there other biological hazards that could wreak as much havoc or potentially even more havoc than this Amerithrax response has caused?

[00:01:20] Moe: From the founding of the Department, we've had this sort of core mission in understanding chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear hazards, and we've done that through a variety of mechanisms and means. We've built out what is, in my opinion, one of the most unique and important laboratories in the country, in DHS S&T’s NBACC laboratory, the National Bio Defense Analysis and Countermeasure Center up in Frederick. We've had this laboratory that's uniquely equipped and qualified to do it. And we've done risk assessments for many years to help, resource planners and decision makers make decisions around CBRN risks to the homeland. And PANTHR is just the current version of how we do this.

[00:02:45] Verrico: This is awesome. I am very familiar with a lot of the work that you do up there within the PANTHR program. One of the things that people probably do know NBACC for is the research that was done on COVID 19. Could you just describe a little bit about some of that work?

[00:03:02] Moe: Sure. NBACC has a really interesting mission in that it sits at the confluence of public health and national security. So, it's a BSL four laboratory, which is the highest containment laboratory possible. It can work with the most harmful biological agents. So, we often spend our time and our resources in that unique space, looking at problems that are at the confluence of national security and public health, worrying about the risks that could really cause severe economic harm or health harm to the nation.

[00:03:32] Verrico: I wanna just stop you for just a second. I want people to understand that you're looking for understanding these, these diseases and also, understanding their impacts, what causes them, how they spread, and then also looking at countermeasures. We are not, and it's really, really important for people to know that we are not creating them, mutating them or doing any of that kind of weird stuff.

[00:03:55] Moe: Yeah, absolutely. And that's a really interesting, important point to make, John. So, thank you for flagging that. DHS has what is in my opinion, and I've worked in this space for about 15 years now, I think the most effective statutory and regulatory review process for going through these types of projects to make sure that we adhere to all of the rules and the intent behind these treaties to make sure that everything we're doing is above board and for the right purposes. But specifically on, on COVID, you know, we're at this confluence of public health and national security. And I think we'd all agree that COVID really did affect our economic security. and that's a component obviously, of national security. So, so very early in the pandemic, S&T leadership reached out to the PANTHR team and said, Hey, you guys, we know you're not a public health program, but can you use your tools to help us answer questions in this space? So, we pulled together what we knew. We pulled that into a document and we called a Master Question List that laid out what we knew and what we didn't know, helped us identify the priorities to fund our research efforts in, and then as quickly as we could, we initiated those efforts. We sort of reoriented our program, put our existing projects on ice and were able to get some isolates of the virus into our research facilities, both at NBACC and at some of our other performers and were able to generate what I think was really important data on the stability of the virus, under realistic environmental conditions, as well as, ways to clean up, the virus using commonly available products like bleach and hydrogen peroxide.

[00:05:24] Verrico: This was certainly not your first rodeo in this realm because, we know, COVID was certainly not the first disease of concern that we'd been looking at.

[00:05:32] Moe: So, we've exercised this response. A biological concern arising somewhere in the nation that could affect our national security. We worked with our policy community and our operations community to try to understand what they need to know, quickly. And it's very often how do I detect it? How do I clean up from it? how do I protect my staff, and my teams from it? And so, we already sort of knew the spaces that we'd be asked to answer questions in. We looked at the literature that was out there. We looked at the available data from related viruses, you know, MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and SARS-CoV-1. This is SARS-CoV-2 that we are currently experiencing. So, we were able to sort of put a fence around the problem, looking at the available literature. And then we were able to identify those things where we really wanted to have specific data. And that led to the research that we undertook.

[00:06:20] Verrico: That’s great. So, how is that kind of data used by the medical community, the response community? I mean, it's important to know these facts about how to clean up and, to protect yourself, but how do we then get that information out to people that can use?

[00:06:36] Moe: That's not our mission. Our mission is to support primarily DHS and their components. How COVID affected the DHS missions and the DHS stakeholders and components. We still wanted to allow for the free exchange of goods, across our borders. So, what did we need to do in that space to make sure that we weren't importing COVID or exporting COVID, or at least to minimize the risk of that. We wanted to allow for the free travel of people internationally. So, we looked, we worked a lot with our colleagues at the Transportation Security Administration to look at what we needed to do to, help protect their workforce, as well as, potentially decontaminate if there were known-COVID exposures in the checkpoint environment, as well as some work, with the FAA, looking at the safety or the risk of air travel in a COVID environment. So, the way we get this information out to the community. If we're doing these basic and applied research problems, we disseminate it through the traditional means of scientific communication. Our work, especially on COVID, was all through peer review journals. Now because of the urgency of the response of COVID, we did lean forward a little bit when we had confidence in our results.

[00:07:47] Moe: And we were very careful to always caveat these results as emerging or pre-publication or those other caveats. But we did leverage our sort of government communication mechanisms to push out information we thought would be extremely beneficial. Sort of worth the risk of getting over our skis a little bit at that point, which thankfully was validated through the peer review process. But for example, in the middle of 2020, we had good data that showed that this virus wasn't stable under conditions that are the same as when the virus is exposed to sunlight. That's really helpful information that was one of the fundamental building blocks of the safer outdoors strategy. So, we were able to push that out, through some government, information communication channels while the publication was going through the peer review process.

[00:08:35] Verrico: Yeah, and it was so important to get that kind of information out. You folks, aren't just doing, you know, the hard science, but you're also doing science in practical application. This is not science for science sake.

[00:08:47] Moe: Yeah, it's a super cool mission to, to look at sort of, how do we solve problems rapidly with the most capable, scientific tools that we have to bring to bear. And I also wanna be really careful. I did nothing. My job as program manager. My job is to make sure that the experts and the technical savants in this space have the resources and the bandwidth and the space. They need to do what they do. My job, I feel sometimes like the conductor of an orchestra who doesn't know how to play a single instrument. I trust that all those people are there, and they know what they're doing, and it's my job to give them the opportunity to do it.

[00:09:20] Verrico: And that's brilliant because what you've got is a crew of really super intelligent scientists. I've talked to a lot of them and they're just absolutely amazingly brilliant. So this is really, you know, great stuff, but I know, PANTHR is more than the biological aspect, but there's also, you know, chemical, radiological and nuclear threats. So, what can you tell me about kind of that the other parts of the PANTHR mission?

[00:09:46] Moe: The fundamental value proposition of PANTHR is that there are too many problems in the CBRN, the chemical, biological, radiological nuclear, risk space. There's too many ways that our national security could be harmed from those types of threats and hazards, that we can't eliminate the risk for all of them. Risk elimination is very expensive. Sometimes it's technically or technologically infeasible, which is often the case in a, in emerging fields like biotechnology. So this risk space is huge, but we still have a federal obligation to defend the homeland from these risks. So, once you accept the fact that there are too many risks and not enough resources. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you are using some type of decision-making process to allocate those resources.

[00:10:37] Moe: You're making decisions around how best to use your resources to manage that risk. What this program does is try to deliver tools to people so that they can do that in the best way possible. So, the amount of data that's out there is very large. Any publication on any biological material ever could be considered useful, but it needs to be managed. It needs to be distilled down to something that is usable at the policy level or at the operations level. And then, once you have all that data, you then have to do something with it. You have to turn that into a decision support tool. We do that through computational modeling. We take all of this data we can use that to do scenario agnostic, planning, or scenario-specific planning to help people understand, what does that do to my overall risk picture? To help guide acquisition decisions, policy deliberations, and even sometimes, you know, tactical deployment, considerations. I's a wicked hard job. We struggle to best manage our resources, to do our job in a responsible and effective way. But at the same time, when we're able to help those decision makers, it's so rewarding and so valuable.

[00:11:46] Verrico: You've mentioned several times now, Matt, coming up with tools, and we also have things that we call knowledge products. So, what do we mean by tools and knowledge products in this context and how do we actually make use of those things?

[00:12:02] Moe: Sure, when we did our studies on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the virus that causes COVID disease. We came up with, and I apologize in advance, but degradation coefficients. So how impactful was temperature and humidity and UV or solar light on the stability of the virus. We published it in a technical manuscript, and it was widely read in the scientific community. But if you are a local public health practitioner, if you are, you know, a, an operational component of the department, that technical publication probably doesn't directly help you make a decision. So instead of handing people algorithms and saying, good luck. We took that algorithm and, with a bunch of caveats and with a bunch of, provisos saying like this is a tool to support your decision making process, but by no means should be making a decision for you.

[00:12:56] Moe: We took that algorithm and we converted it into a calculator. So, we said if the temperature is X, and if the humidity is Y, and if the sunlight is Z, our research predicts, the virus would remain viable for this many hours. That tool was used, was downloaded from our website more than the technical publication was, but they were the same data. And so, when I talk about developing tools to support decision makers, that's what I'm talking about. How do we take our basic and applied knowledge product and turn it into something that a non-technical expert can use to make a relevant decision? And if I could just comment for one second on the acronym game, I'm surrounded by super brilliant, scientists and engineers. But these are also highly creative, highly artistic people at times as well. And within the government, there's not a lot of opportunity to exercise our creativity. And so, we do have a lot of fun thinking about and playing with acronyms within our portfolio. Cause it's one of the few creative outlets that we get.

[00:13:59] Verrico: So now you've been with PANTHR from the beginning.

[00:14:02] Moe: Yeah. So, I've been with the Department since 2011. I was, civilian in the Army before that I had the opportunity to go on a developmental assignment out to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for two years, from 2016 to 2018. And when I came back, was right when we, initialized PANTHR.

[00:14:21] Verrico: If you had to describe your work at PANTHR to your great Aunt Tessie or your third-grade niece, how would you describe the work that you do?

[00:14:33] Moe: Oh man. That's a really good question. It depends on the context you know, in one hand I'm a program manager and that's a pretty ubiquitous term that people know, but if I was to explain this program to my five-year-old would be to make sure that, decision makers have the best tools that they can to make decisions about how to protect our country from CBRN attacks.

[00:15:00] Verrico: What do you think the average person might know, think they know or not know what, you know, what misconceptions do you think people have about CBRN stuff? Chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear. Of course, that last one, nuclear really scares people.

[00:15:18] Moe: Yeah, nuclear really scares people. It's a difficult problem for sure. But in my head, it's, also the most defined problem. We all know what a nuclear weapon is. We've seen a movie or something with a mushroom cloud. we understand how devastating and how just horrific a nuclear attack would be anywhere in the world. But especially if our country or even worse family is involved. That's pretty easy. Radiological, we are surrounded by radiological sources, whether we realize it or not, they're in our hospitals, they're in heavy use in certain industries. So, they're out there. Radiological risk to the homeland is a tough one because those are really persistent hazards. If they were to be present somewhere, they're very difficult to clean up. And then chemicals are just everywhere. They're part of our industrial processes. They're very prevalent you know, just recently in Jordan, uh, tanker exploded, and 13 people were killed from a chemical release and that's just an example of the types of, accidental things can happen. And then there's the whole, you know, nefarious use of chemistry that could cause harm to the nation as well. But for me, and perhaps it's my bias as starting as a biologist in this mission space. But the one that, that really keeps me up at night is the biological hazards and risks.

[00:16:33] Moe: The biotechnology space is evolving so fast. New capabilities are coming online that have huge implications for the flourishing of humanity. But many of these tools have a dual-use application that my program has to think about and has to make sure our policy makers and our decision makers have good information and good tools available to help them through how these potentially, you know, life changing technologies might be misapplied, might be misused. And honestly, John. that's the mission space that, I'm most concerned about doing that responsibly effectively and well.

[00:17:09] Verrico: And, there's so many aspects, to it. We were talking about the fact that you need to understand the characteristics of it, how it spreads, and then, you know, probably even more importantly is how to decontaminate and clean.

[00:17:24] Moe: Yeah. Even with the traditional sort of hazards, there's uniquenesses to, a lot of them that surprise you. This was in NBACC's publication on the efficacy of different decontamination solutions on SARS-CoV-2. So, NBACC took the virus, they suspended the virus in simulated human saliva to replicate if somebody, you know, who's sick with COVID coughs or something like that. and then they apply different decontamination solutions to it, to see which ones worked.

[00:17:53] Moe: And then which ones worked the fastest, cuz you know, if you're doing mass decontamination speed is an important variable. And one of the solutions that we thought for sure would've worked, just, didn't. NBACC was always able to recover the virus from that specific test it was hydrogen peroxide. We tried bleach. It worked well. We tried Lysol-based product. It worked well. And then when we tried isopropyl alcohol. But every time we use hydrogen peroxide, we were still able to recover live virus afterwards. Because of the speed of the testing we were doing, we weren't really able to go back and suss out why. That wasn't the focus of the work we weren't looking for. The mechanism of action. We were just trying to give again, operational folks, good information.

[00:18:36] Verrico: Wow. there's a surprise you know, but that is the purpose of this kind of R&D right?

[00:18:41] Moe: Absolutely. Yeah. we love to challenge assumptions. There are definitely some dogma in the bio defense realm around certain agents and it's fun when we can identify one of those, look for the data, see that there really is no good data. And then do some work to challenge that assumption. One of the big ones is that particles above a certain size don't travel very well. And we saw this with COVID where there was some initial talks of, you know, particles versus droplets. And what do we need to be more concerned about? While there are effects of the size of the particle on how well it makes you sick and where it trains itself in your respiratory track? From the particle transport perspective, there, there is no magic number per se.

[00:19:22] Verrico: What I found so interesting, I'll just use COVID as an example, you know, when you're talking about decontamination and things like that, and the information that you were able to provide to folks, you looked at a variety of even surfaces. Stainless steel surfaces versus, you know, the plastic on your laptop keyboard or your computer mouse, versus, a wood surface, those kinds of things. They all had, you know, little bit of difference and then there were some things that were commonalities as well, but it was so interesting that you had to look at all of these things in different ways to understand, if the virus is going to remain viable.

[00:20:01] Moe: One of the big constraints of our work is often how many variables can we include in the test? We wish we could test every service. We wish we could test every suspension, media, you know, saliva, water, some biologically relevant things like, phosphate buffered saline, or PBS. But once you add a variable, it sometimes doubles or triples the size of your test to make it relevant to all the other variables that you're already including. So, we have to very carefully manage what we're gonna try to answer. So, before we do a test, we work with our operational and our other stakeholders to try to suss out what are those things that are most important to them.

[00:20:42] Moe: And then we do our best to incorporate as much as we can in a reasonable statistically relevant way. If you think of every surface everywhere on the planet, we sort of break them into two buckets, porous surfaces, where things can soak in and non-porous surfaces where things can't. And then from there we can further break it down. But those are some, just an example of the types of, thought processes we use to try to constrain how many variables we have to manage.

[00:21:09] Verrico: I wanna mention the Master Question List and, and you've done the Master Question List now for several types of major, biological threats. One of the things that I thought was so amazing is that you looked at all of the research, that's out there by other entities and kind of put it all together, consolidated it and said, okay, these are all the things that we know what now are, the things that we need to know in order to, you know, advance the next level, in order to recover in order to get past this stage of the pandemic or whatever it is? And so once you ask those questions and let folks know in the research community, Hey, these are still the unanswered questions. Then your group said, okay, these are the ones that we are uniquely qualified to start investigating and coming up with the answers.

[00:22:01] Moe: Yeah, one of our roles as the science and technology arm of the Department of Homeland security is to be the Secretary’s science advisor. We are supposed to be positioned and ready to respond and even anticipate, the needs of our leadership so we have found the Master Question List is a great way to organize ourselves around the questions that you identified. What do we need to know? Or what do we think we're gonna need to know, what's the best available literature to answer the question and then if that's lacking, how can we find out, is there a science project or research endeavor that we can do to close the delta between what we need to know and what we do know?

[00:22:38] Moe: And I have to confess that I stole this. I gladly give the credit to our British colleagues. They had this approach and they explained it to us, and we started using it bilaterally and we found it just super effective. And so, we've, sort of expanded it out into other domains of our portfolio as well.

[00:22:55] Verrico: That also is the benefit of having, uh, international partnerships of all kinds, because we learn so much from each other.

[00:23:03] Moe: For us to go to the lab to answer a question that we need an answer to is at least six months of time, because lab work just takes time to set up and then manage and execute. Especially if you're gonna do biodefense research in a containment environment where you're working in, you know, suits and gloves and head entry and exit restrictions. So, if we need to go to the lab to answer a question that's at least six months and you know, probably a couple hundred thousand dollars, each time. So, anything that we can get from our partners, from our allies, from academia, the return on an investment from a program perspective is just so huge. So, I'm luckily the grateful recipient of lots of good work from lots of other people, which really, multiplies the effectiveness of this program, given our mission.

[00:23:51] Verrico: So, what's next on the horizon, then?

[00:23:53] Moe: We have the research risk goals that we've set for ourselves, in terms of like a research roadmap. But we always hold it with an open hand, because the real world often likes to intervene and throw us a curve ball. You know, in, 2019, I had no idea we were gonna suspend all virus research across the entire portfolio and devote every resource to what was then an unknown virus, SARS-CoV-2. So, on one hand we have our strategic goals. We want to build tools to better understand host, pathogen relationships. We want to build out capabilities in agricultural defense. We want to expand our chemical hazard research portfolio, but we always have to be willing to let the real world come in and redirect the rudder of the ship. We have to plan to be surprised.

[00:24:48] Verrico: I like that plan to be surprised. And I think that is probably the moniker for the science community. Isn't it? Matt, I'm gonna ask you kind of on a personal note, why do you do what you do?

[00:25:01] Moe: That's a really good and humbling question, John. I often think that I'm one of the luckiest people, to get a job that aligns with my passions. And I think that I, I get to work with teams of the brightest people in their specific domains. And my job is to help translate their very good, but often very technical information to a non-technical audience across the spectrum of government. Be it policy, operations, strategy. I was lucky that early in my life, I was a high school teacher. So, I sort of learned to communicate technical topics in a non-technical manner, especially to an audience who doesn't wanna listen to you. Uh, the, the typical high school biology student, who's just trying to get through their day. From there, I was able to get an internship with the Army, as a civilian, and really learn a lot about, the CBRN defense mission from a defense perspective. And then I was able to join the Department here about 10 years ago, I'm just so lucky to do what I do to work with the team that I have. many times in my career, I thought that I was in the best job that I would have for my career. but often around every corner, there's a new challenge and a new opportunity that just makes it even more rewarding.

[00:26:10] Verrico: So, I have to ask, what advice would you give to those high school students now or any other, you know, young student who's looking at making some career choices?

[00:26:21] Moe: Uh, if government service, if civil service is something that, that you might be interested in, you, you need to go into it with your eyes wide open. You will make less than you could make, if you were to pursue a private industry job, but your opportunity to do just what I think is magnificently rewarding work, in terms of protecting our nation in terms of protecting our economy, our, our national security, man, those opportunities to me are worth the sacrifice. If somebody's interested in getting into this space, I would highly encourage them to look at internships, that's a great way to get a foot in the door with the government. I know DHS has an internship program. I've also had the opportunity to work with interns at FBI interns at CIA. If you're out of school, if you've, you know, finished your studies or your graduate studies, there's all types of avenues into the government. The Presidential Fellows Program, AAAS. If you're interested in the space, there's opportunities there. One of the most rewarding things I've gotten to do a few times is to go speak at, panels of often recently graduated Ph.Ds and open their eyes to the possibility of working in the government program or policy space. And that's that's wonderful when highly technical, highly expert people are able to apply that skill, not only their technical domain, but their ability to learn and to evaluate information and help us solve the hard problems that the government has to solve.

[00:27:49] Verrico: To the government's benefit, which ultimately benefits, the people and the nation the amount of impact that people like you have is absolutely staggering. Matt, thank you again for taking the time to, to join us on this podcast today.

[00:28:03] Moe: No, John, thank you for the opportunity. This has been a lot of fun to, to talk about what we have going on in the portfolio. If anybody wants a little bit more information, we do have a public website, you can just search PANTHR and DHS, and it'll come up.

[00:28:17] Verrico: Thank you, again. For those of you who are interested, yes, it is the Department of Homeland Security's Science. and Technology Directorate and you can follow us on social media at DHS SciTech. And also if you are gonna search for PANTHR, it is P A N T H R. There's no E.

This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S&T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHS SciTech. Thanks for listening.

Last Updated: 09/28/2022
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