Preston to study how temperatures affect the COVID-19 pandemic

Assistant professor of mechanical engineering has received a $159,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant for project.

Daniel Preston

Daniel Preston, assistant professor of mechanical engineering (MECH), has received a $159,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to study the effect of varying temperatures on the lifetime of the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The project is titled “Thermal sterilization of medical PPE contaminated with SARS-CoV-2.” Preston, the lead principal investigator, is collaborating with Chien-Te “Kent” Tseng, professor of microbiology and immunology with the Centers for Biodefense and Emerging Diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

“Kent has access to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in his laboratory and can provide experimental validation of our analytical model's predictions of the lifetime of the virus at various temperatures,” said Preston, whose lab’s share of the one-year grant is $80,000.

He noted that medical workers in the U.S. face a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, face shields and gowns. Doctors and nurses are forced to reuse protective gear designed to be discarded after a single use, thus increasing the risk of infection. Current guidelines for sterilization are limited.

“Dry heat sterilization can be performed almost anywhere, even using home ovens and rice cookers. Viruses inside crevices or within fabrics can easily be inactivated. Our project will provide evidence-based guidelines for the time required to achieve sterilization at a given temperature,” Preston said.

The project will also help predict the lifetime of viruses in various climates. That will become important in predicting the spread of the virus and the severity of the resurgence that may accompany the return of colder weather.

Preston summarized the project’s chief objectives:

  1. to model the inactivation of SARS-CoV-2 due to high temperatures, factoring in the effects of humidity, pH and surface material.
  2. to experimentally demonstrate sterilization of SARS-CoV-2 on medical PPE.
  3. to characterize thermal degradation of PPE during repeated thermal sterilization cycles.

An article describing the early results from Preston’s work on the thermal inactivation of coronaviruses is under peer review. A preprint of the manuscript, titled “A Predictive Model of the Temperature-Dependent Inactivation of Coronaviruses,” can be read at the ChemRxiv repository. Preston’s co-authors are Zhen Liu, Rachel A. Shveda and Faye Yap, all Rice graduate students in his lab.

Preston earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in MECH from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014 and 2017, respectively. For the next two years he trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. He joined the Rice faculty in 2019.