The Defense Department has embarked on a multi-hundred-million dollar effort to protect troops from bioterrorism. Its strategy focuses on containing potential outbreaks in areas of the world where pathogens are known to exist.
“What we’re trying to do is build lines of defense between the terrorists who have made it very clear that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction — and who have made it very clear that they’ll use them on the American people — and the pathogens,” said Ken Myers, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the U.S. Strategic Command Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The task is not new for the agency, which is responsible for dispatching teams under the auspices of the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program to dismantle post-Cold War nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union. But one of the newer thrusts, the cooperative biological engagement program, is rapidly growing its reach, said Myers.
“It’s because we’re learning a lot more about potential threats in continents and areas other than the former Soviet Union,” he told National Defense.
In regions including Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, teams are discovering that local health clinics possess deadly pathogens not necessarily as potential weapons, but because they need to have samples of naturally-occurring diseases on hand to diagnose outbreaks in their human and animal populations.
The problem though is that the samples are often kept in public repositories where the microbes easily could be swiped and released, intentionally or accidentally.
“We’re looking for partners in new areas around the world who have legitimate need for maintaining samples of these horrible diseases and pathogens,” said Myers. “We are looking for ways to partner with them to increase their ability to keep them secure and safe, to be able to account for them so they know exactly how many strains of pathogen X or pathogen Y or pathogen Z they might have.”
In some of these locations, the effort is not so much about building million-dollar laboratories but rather establishing safety protocols in existing infrastructure. Providing relatively inexpensive security measures, such as locks and bars on windows, or installing computer tracking systems, such as barcodes and scanners, can help clinics safeguard and monitor their specimens.
“We’re talking about providing capability which the host country can sustain, maintain and use,” Myers said.
Along with upgrading the facilities’ security infrastructure, the agency also wants to help partner nations beef up biosurveillance capability.
“By definition, we have to have a product that’s easy to use because we want to encourage people in remote locations around the world to share the information. We’re looking at products that could potentially be used with cell phones, or PDAs, or laptops,” Myers said.
In addition, the cooperative biological engagement teams also assist with epidemiological training so that the partner nations’ scientists and medical specialists can be effective and efficient at identifying outbreaks and alerting the proper authorities.
The Defense Department is establishing medical research facilities to help foster opportunities to engage with the international community on matters including biosurveillance and disease detection. One such facility, U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit-6, was recently commissioned in Lima, Peru. Its outpost is in Iquitos, at the mouth of the Amazon River, said Alan Rudolph, director of the chemical and biological technologies directorate at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. It joins a growing number of U.S. naval labs around the globe, including NAMRU-3 in Cairo and NAMRU-2, which is expected to be re-established in Southeast Asia.
“We find ourselves more and more at the table with international science and technology organizations,” said Rudolph, who in April signed an information exchange agreement with India. He was planning to meet with defense officials there along with other Indian government agencies to discuss topics of interest, including biosurveillance and diagnostics, “because we share some of the same challenges.”
The partnerships are mutually beneficial, he said. “Being on the ground in areas like Lima, Peru, with projects, and doing some diagnostic surveillance technology demonstrations in Africa like we’re planning next year in western Sierra Leone, are great opportunities to test our technologies in areas to take advantage of endemic disease, so that we can actually get real-world experience with collecting samples around real-world diseases,” Rudolph said. “Establishing relationships with other scientists in some of these areas will allow us access to new information and opportunity.”
The cooperative biological engagement program received a funding boost after biothreats were elevated as a national priority following the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic — a global outbreak that was thought to have originated in Mexico. It caught many nations’ health experts off guard and was largely perceived as a wake-up call.
“What we learned with H1N1 and the H5N1 [avian flu outbreaks], is that these diseases don’t know national boundaries,” said Myers. “What might be a local issue in Africa on Monday could be a potential threat to the United States later in the week. If it’s a threat to the American people later in the week, then it could be a threat to American servicemen and women serving overseas much, much quicker.”
The recent focus and attention on biothreats, however, do not indicate a waning interest in nuclear warhead safety and security initiatives in Russia and elsewhere, Myers cautioned. The U.S. government made substantial capital investments in the 1990s and early 2000s to construct submarine, bomber and missile dismantlement facilities; fissile material storage facilities and chemical weapons destruction facilities. With those buildings now in place, the costs for the disposal of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles have dropped.
“That’s one of the reasons why we have resources available to go look for and engage partners … to address deadly pathogens and diseases around the world,” said Myers. He added that the funding levels for the bio-engagement initiative are expected to be maintained during the next few years.
DTRA is seeking nearly $260 million in fiscal year 2012 to expand the cooperative biological engagement initiative into Iraq, Tanzania, Djibouti, South Africa and India. In addition, the funds, which will be spent over three years, will help to solidify recent partnerships in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kenya and Uganda and maintain ties in Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Russia.
“Many of the countries we’re dealing with now never had any intention of being a threat to the United States,” Myers emphasized. “One of their interests in engaging with us is to become real partners with us, and we look forward to developing those relationships,” he said.