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Start your engines: How cars can neutralize coronavirus

We’ve long known that heat can deactivate most viruses. But what if that virus is COVID-19, and it’s on the materials inside a vehicle?

How hot would you need to heat those materials, and for how long, in order to decontaminate the vehicle’s interior? Given that there are a multitude of different plastics in the interior, that complicates things even more as COVID-19 has been demonstrated to be active for different times on different surfaces.

In a study commissioned by Ford Motor Co., Ohio State researchers have been working to find the answers to some of these questions – and it appears that for most interior car surfaces, a temperature of 56 degrees Celsius (132.8 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 15 minutes is pretty effective.

Microbiologists Jeff Jahnes and Jesse Kwiek made this discovery as part of the collaboration with Ford Research designed to learn how police cruisers can be decontaminated more efficiently during the pandemic.

“The applied part of this research is what makes it exciting,” said Kwiek, associate professor of microbiology, “we were able to contribute to helping police officers stay well during a very critical time.”

And their research at the Department of Microbiology continues in order to help society combat COVID-19 through the use of heat and ultraviolet light.

“The study we accomplished so far is to monitor viral activity on various surfaces of a vehicle at very specific temperatures,” said Jahnes, director of Ohio State’s Center for Applied Microbiology. “The virus could be contaminating everything we touch, so anyone that is manufacturing a product is probably getting inquiries about how to decontaminate that product properly. A lot of these manufacturers are then asking, ‘Hey, we never thought about this. What can we do?’

“It definitely has applications in a lot of different areas.”

Jahnes has spoken to the Public Safety Office at Ohio State about partnering on research similar to what the university is conducting for Ford. There also are developing opportunities to use the process to decontaminate public transportation and office spaces.

“This exciting project is an example of exactly what we thought a Center for Applied Microbiology could do,” Jahnes said. “We want to be responsive to the needs of Ohio and to global needs."

Ford originally asked Jahnes about ultraviolet light's ability to help neutralize viruses on surfaces two years ago, long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Ford Research was really interested way back then in the issue of pathogen exposure,” Jahnes said. “They were thinking more about seasonal flu or bacteria. And they were looking at different technologies and strategies to disinfect the vehicle and minimize bacteria and molds, looking ahead to shared and autonomous vehicles.”

Jahnes was two years into that research for Ford when the company asked him in March to pivot to specifically testing materials inside its 2013 to 2019 models of Police Interceptor Utility hybrid SUVs.

Ford’s engineers had developed software to activate the vehicle’s powertrain and climate control systems so that the engine’s heat would temporarily raise the cabin temperature with hopes of neutralizing the virus.

The auto manufacturer wanted Jahnes to test the right temperature and time combination needed for its heating system to inactivate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on surfaces located inside the Police Interceptor Utility SUV.

Jahnes joined up with Kwiek, and they contacted Linda Saif at the university’s Wooster campus. She has spent more than 40 years at Ohio State studying coronaviruses as a renowned virologist and immunologist.

“Linda Saif gave us the system, the surrogate virus for the coronavirus, and the cells it infects to which we could do our testing,” Kwiek said.

At times, the teams both at Ford and Ohio State were under intense pressure to get the data yesterday — but in the end it was worth it to be able to help our first responders.

Jesse Kwiek, Ohio State microbiologist

Both the researchers at Ford and those at Ohio State had to act quickly. Ford began collecting and mailing many different types surface samples located inside the vehicle like carpet, door handles, fabric, hard plastics and vinyl materials – even a steering wheel – to Jahnes.

This seems like an easy task, but with COVID closing down most of Ohio State’s campus, Ford’s Engineering Center and even the post office, sometimes it seemed Herculean to get the samples to Ohio State in short order.

Once samples were delivered, they were cut into swatches the size of a half-inch by a half-inch.

Kwiek and Jahnes put a concentrated virus droplet on each swatch, waited for it to dry, then placed it into an incubation chamber with controllable temperature and humidity.

“We put the virus in the oven, pull it out and quantify how much of it is still there,” Jahnes said. “That’s the simplified version, but of course there’s more to it than that. We had to modify the procedures and perform replicates to make sure the data was accurate. Once we’ve determined what infectious virus has remained, then we knew how effective the time-temperature combination had been in inactivating the virus for that material.”

In May, Ford announced the program to inactivate viruses on the surfaces and materials inside its police vehicles by using heat generated by the powertrain and the climate control system, with the verifying data produced by Ohio State.

“We’re leveraging an existing public-private partnership on collaborative research,” Kwiek said. “Something pretty big (the virus) came along and because we already had a partnership and relationship, we were able to pivot and act quickly and turn it into something that could be of enormously practical value. At times, the teams both at Ford and Ohio State were under intense pressure to get the data yesterday — but in the end it was worth it to be able to help our first responders.”