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NIST has several research projects underway to support efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Below is an overview of those projects.

Biological Measurements

  • NIST researchers collaborated on a multi-organizational study that looked at using reference materials with known amounts of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to help standardize PCR tests for COVID-19. Read more about the study and NIST’s role in this news story.
  • NIST developed a new way to increase the sensitivity and accuracy of the common swab test for COVID-19, critical for understanding and controlling the outbreak. The math-based approach could reduce measurement errors in the test, potentially detecting more asymptomatic carriers of the virus. Read the news story.
  • One approach to diagnostic testing for COVID-19 involves detecting the RNA (genetic material) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a nasal swab. Manufacturers of test kits need a way to measure how effective their tests are at detecting this RNA. To help with this, NIST has produced synthetic fragments of SARS-CoV-2 RNA that manufacturers can use to calibrate their instruments and develop quality controls. This research grade test material is safe to handle, as it is composed of RNA fragments, rather than the virus’s full RNA genome. Learn more about this project.
Improving COVID-19 Testing
Improving COVID-19 Testing
Working alone in the lab, but with remote support from her colleagues, NIST research biologist Megan Cleveland produced synthetic gene fragments from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This material, which is non-infectious and safe to handle, can help manufacturers produce more accurate and reliable diagnostic tests for the disease. Watch this video to learn more about this project and see what it’s like to work in a lab during a pandemic.

Biological Measurements (cont.)

  • NIST will research how the diagnostic assay for COVID-19 deployed by the CDC will be affected by mutations in the coronavirus that causes the disease, and potentially identify issues in the test before the virus mutates enough to escape detection.
  • NIST is co-organizing a pilot study with three other National Metrology Institutes through the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) CCQM Nucleic Acid Working Group. The study will expand measurement capabilities and help standardize the performance of analytical methods used by diagnostic test manufacturers, clinical laboratory-developed tests and international test standardization efforts.
  • NIST researchers are using all-atom molecular dynamics simulations to model RNA viruses and predict their shapes and movements to gain a better understanding of how to design drugs to treat them. Read more in this blog post.

  • NIST researcher Matt Staymates created high-speed visualizations (see below) illustrating a flow of air when breathing and coughing using home-made face coverings. Read more about the process of creating the video in this blog
Cover smart. Do your part. Slow the spread.
Cover smart. Do your part. Slow the spread.
The high-speed visualizations illustrating a flow when breathing and coughing using home-made masks. Learn more about my at-home lab in this blog post:…

Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence, Data and Analytics

  • A multidisciplinary team of NIST experts in natural language processing and data curation and discovery have created tools that allow researchers to get the most from the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), a collection of tens of thousands of scholarly research articles about coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. 
  • NIST researchers are leveraging a long-running program that evaluates and advances search engine technologies to spur improvements in searches of the CORD-19 dataset, in partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology. Read the NIST news article
    • Learn more about this project in this blog post.
  • A cross-laboratory group is working on ways to apply NIST expertise in privacy, cybersecurity, sensors and other measurement-science fields to meet community challenges in the development and application of contact tracing through apps and other hardware. Learn more.
    • Read this blog post about the grassroots effort to develop an exposure notification system for pandemics in general, which the scientists hope could be used in at least a limited fashion during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Read this news article about NIST progress in developing a method, called encounter metrics, that can measure the number of encounters and level of interactions between people. By incorporating the method to smartphones and Bluetooth devices, and applying encryption to the technique, encounter metrics can prevent the spread of future pandemics while preserving the privacy of individuals.

    • In this news article, learn about how NIST is developing a low-cost radio system for contact tracing; it detects when people or animals come into close contact with each other while preserving privacy.

  • NIST researchers are exploring the feasibility of using AI to predict key COVID-19 trends. 
  • A NIST software tool known as Forecasting for Immunization Test Suite (FITS) is being applied by CDC to the COVID-19 vaccines that have become available. FITS will be used to test the forecasting capabilities of each state’s Immunization Information Systems (IIS) which are keeping track of all the doses being administered. Read the NIST news article
  •  A preliminary study by NIST showed that commercial facial recognition algorithms have a range of error rates in in matching digitally applied face masks with photos of the same person without a mask. A more recent study of face recognition technology created after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that some software developers have made demonstrable progress at recognizing masked faces.

Personal Protective Equipment 

  • A team of NIST researchers plans to design a system to test the release of gases from masks after they have been decontaminated, in coordination with the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory.
  • NIST scientists are measuring the filtration performance of mask fabrics and filtering materials to understand the variables that effect mask performance and which combinations of materials are most effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19. These studies have shown that double-layer cotton masks are particularly effective and that the humidity in breath makes them more effective still. See a NIST photo essay that explains how microscopic features in mask fabrics effect their performance.
  • A team of NIST researchers is designing a research plan to verify the integrity of N95 masks following decontamination with ultraviolet irradiation, using techniques including high-resolution scanning-electron microscopy (SEM).  Read the news story.
  • A NIST engineer developed a spreadsheet tool to estimate the amount of vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP) N95 masks would receive during disinfection, to help hospitals determine the best rooms to use for the process. Read the NIST news article.
  • NIST Boulder is lending an environmental chamber to Colorado State University for use in testing N95 masks.
  • A NIST researcher created visualizations showing that masks with exhalation valves do not slow the spread of COVID-19. Read the NIST news article.
  • Our standards experts are helping manufacturers meet relevant standards for production of personal protective equipment.
With UV Light, N95 Masks Can Be Cleaned and Reused Safely
With UV Light, N95 Masks Can Be Cleaned and Reused Safely
Researchers at NIST have discovered that, under specific conditions, UV can adequately disinfect masks without causing any unwanted alterations. The findings mark a key step towards the development of standard, science-backed UV disinfection methods that could be critical in the future if the PPE supply is low.

Manufacturing and Industry

  • The NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership has worked with its clients across the country to identify and support manufacturers who can help with supplies required to respond to COVID-19 needs. 
  • The NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership is awarding CARES Act funding to its national network of centers to help manufacturers respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the news release
    • NIST has awarded a total of $50 million in emergency funding to support U.S. manufacturers in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the news release.
  • The Manufacturing USA network is awarding funds to existing institutes to support rapid, high-impact projects that help with the nation’s response to the pandemic. Read the news release
    • NIST has awarded $8.9 million for high-impact biopharmaceutical manufacturing projects to support the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the news release.
    • NIST has awarded $3.4 million in grants to support high-impact projects for COVID-19 pandemic response to four ManufacturingUSA institutes. Read the news release.
  • NIST research chemists are working to make widely available reliable test materials and methods to verify the ethanol content in hand sanitizer.
  • NIST economists will survey small and medium-sized enterprises to document their experiences planning for natural disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic, and share lessons learned with federal partners (e.g., Federal Emergency Management Agency, Economic Development Administration, NOAA, Small Business Administration) and other key stakeholders. Read the news story detailing results of the first survey and the NIST report on the second survey.
    • If you're interested in getting involved in NIST’s third survey this fall, email SMEResearch [at] (SMEResearch[at]nist[dot]gov).
  • NIST staff members have helped to develop a new set of voluntary standards that establish a baseline set of equipment performance requirements for the safe storage of vaccines. The new standards apply to medical refrigerators and freezers with temperature ranges that could be used for most vaccines, including flu shots, almost all childhood vaccines, and COVID-19 vaccines, at least under some circumstances. Read the news story.


  • NIST engineers are coordinating with other government agencies to identify opportunities to address reported ventilator shortages through new technologies, rapid assessment, and other options. 

Wireless Innovations  

  • NIST researchers are beginning a project to capture data on wireless spectrum occupancy, traffic load, and the number of devices/networks operating during the current period of heavy remote working and operations. The project is designed to develop appropriate scenarios for future testing to enable device developers, manufacturers, and regulators to stress-test systems prior to deployment and to support communication networking that is more resilient to pandemics and other disasters.
  • NIST researchers are exploring the feasibility of implementing a simple software update to wireless routers or base stations to enable them to function as non-contact respiratory monitors in home and medical environments. 

Energy and Environment 

  • NIST engineers are retooling an existing web-based indoor particle exposure modeling tool to address virus outflow, transport, and occupant exposure within buildings. Read the news release.
  • NIST is working with research partners in academia and other federal agencies to assess the impact of the pandemic response on greenhouse gas emissions from various urban areas.
  • **NEW** NIST engineers have developed a simple interactive webtool to help residents learn how ventilation and filtration could lower their exposure to potentially infectious aerosols in their home. Read the news release.

Pandemic-related technology transfer resources 

  • NIST’s Technology Partnerships Office has created a list of resources for companies and entrepreneurs interested in technology transfer that will support the response to COVID-19.
Created May 21, 2020, Updated May 11, 2023