Disarming Deadly Biological Threats by Turning up The Heat

Zach Weiner

Zach Weiner, LLS Fellowship Alumnus

After completing CDC’s Laboratory Leadership Service fellowship program, one fellow discovered he doesn’t need laser beams shooting from his eyeballs to render a biological threat powerless. Learn how turning up the temperature, using well-calibrated tools, and attention to detail result in virus reagents that are harmless yet helpful.

Zach Weiner entered the Laboratory Leadership Service (LLS) as a new member of the Poxvirus and Rabies Branch at CDC in Atlanta. He and his colleagues help laboratory professionals around the world by providing safe, high-quality samples of disease-causing viruses. Known as “reagents,” these samples of proteins, DNA, and RNA generated from viruses such as mpox or vaccinia virus are used as a reference when laboratories test specimens from patients to diagnose illnesses. One objective for his fellowship experience was to help his team improve how they created reagents from vaccinia, the virus used in the smallpox vaccine.

Reagents prepared from viruses are critical components in laboratory testing, but if not properly prepared, they can be dangerous for laboratory professionals who use them. For example, if the reagents shipped are not fully inactivated, laboratory staff could be at risk of becoming infected with the virus when they are working with the samples. This is known as a laboratory-acquired infection (LAI), something CDC works very hard to prevent.

Zach used his time in the LLS fellowship program to test and implement a method to make sure viruses are killed or inactivated at a sufficiently high temperature before leaving CDC. This method also allowed staff members to decrease the time it takes to kill the virus, increasing the safety of handling the reagent. Zach made sure his team was using National Institute of Standards and Technology-certified thermometers calibrated for the task. These tools help staff ensure the heat makes the virus inert, but retains helpful information that lab professionals can use for diagnostic processes.

In 1980, the World Health Assembly certified the world was free of smallpox, a deadly virus that only infected humans. A vaccine made from vaccinia virus, a poxvirus similar to smallpox, but less harmful, helped healthcare providers eliminate this disease.

Zach feels tremendous responsibility for the safety of his colleagues throughout the chain of reagent distribution. That’s why he takes extreme care to confirm the effectiveness of the virus inactivation. He does this by demonstrating that no virus survived in any part of the sample tested after the heat inactivation process. He knows that when laboratory staff receive reagents from CDC, there won’t be any harmful surprises. As Zach notes, “Quality and safety are two sides of the same coin. Both are an equally important responsibility, and implementing them does not have to be a burden.”

Zach credits his LLS fellowship with giving him the experience and knowledge he needed to become the branch’s Quality and Compliance Team Lead. In this role, he prepares his laboratory for inspection by the World Health Organization every two years to ensure CDC is following international safety accreditation guidelines for smallpox. He and his CDC colleagues also work with public health laboratory staff across the United States to ensure their laboratories get the latest safety and quality guidance when working with poxviruses.