Researchers Seek New Ways To Protect Chem-Bio Victims

By Stephen Willingham

Defense Department researchers are working to improve the diagnosis and treatment of military personnel and civilians casualties of chemical or biological attacks, but they are hindered by a lack of funding, officials told a recent industry briefing.

The briefing—sponsored by the U.S. Army Soldier and Chemical Command (SBCCOM) and the National Defense Industrial Association—took place at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.

The 2001 budget provides about $150 million to improve diagnosis and treatment of chemical or biological attack victims, according to Carol Linden, director for chemical-biological defense at the Army Medical Research and Material Command (AMRMC) at Fort Detrick, Md.

“One thing we want to do is simplify the diagnostic process by developing a one diagnostic capability set,” Linden said.

After such an attack, medical teams have limited amounts of time to treat victims, officials said. Chemical agents, they noted, act almost immediately, while biological devices begin claiming casualties within a few days after the attack. Thus, Linden said, it is imperative for health professionals to move quickly.

“Our goal is to reduce casualties,” she said. “Casualties resulting from such an attack would create a huge logistics tail, when you consider the great number of people who could be affected.”

The medical defense programs at Fort Detrick serve all of the armed services, conducting research on diagnosis, vaccines and follow-up therapies, Linden said. “Our focus is to provide medical solutions for the warfighter,” she said.

A major aim of chemical-biological research is the eventual development of a group of multi-agent vaccines, Linden said. This could lead to the “reduction, even elimination of casualties that would otherwise follow a chemical-biological attack,” she said.

That, in turn, might “deter employment and proliferation of these kinds of weapons” altogether, Linden reasoned.

A long working relationship between AMRMC and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—focusing on unconventional technologies, which include quicker identification methods for chemical-biological substances—is proving successful, said Linden. “This relationship has now grown from scientific exchanges to the programatic level,” she reported.

A vaccine has been developed against anthrax, which Pentagon officials consider “the number one biological threat.” Anthrax is an airborne virus that attacks the respiratory system. Infection “is almost invariably fatal, if not treated quickly,” said a Pentagon official. Even with prompt treatment, the likelihood of death is 80 percent.

According to a 1993 Congressional Office of Technology Assessment study, an aerosolized release of 100 kilograms of anthrax spores upwind of Washington, D.C., could cause between 130,000 and 3 million deaths.

Believing that members of the armed services face the most immediate danger of attack, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen has ordered that all military personnel, including the Coast Guard, National Guard and reserves be vaccinated against anthrax. In 1998 and 1999, more than 395,000 members of the armed services—including the highest-ranking officials in the Pentagon—received the shots.

Some service personnel, however, have refused the vaccinations, citing religious beliefs or fears of side effects. But such side effects are rare, Linden said. You don’t see them “until you vaccinate large numbers of people,” she explained.

Nevertheless, she conceded that treatment and therapy programs for chemical and biological attacks are complex. She cited mustard gas, used in World War I. “We’ve been working on this one for the last 100 years,” she said.

Gulf War Issues
“More recently, we are still trying to sort out and deal with the issues that arose during the Gulf War.”

After the war, veterans reported symptoms of what is known as the Gulf War illness—that some suggested might have been linked to vaccines administered during the conflict.

About 150,000 U.S. military personnel who served in the theater received anthrax vaccinations, according to Defense Department figures. As many as 8,000 doses of botulism vaccine were also administered. Several studies, however, have failed to establish any evidence to connect the vaccinations with Gulf War illness.

At present, research teams at Fort Detrick—which is located near Frederick, Md.—are working to develop vaccines against botulinum and plague, using recombinant DNA techniques to shorten development time and improve quality, Linden said. The projected fielding dates for the two vaccines are 2009 for botulinum and 2006 for plague.

Development of antibodies to protect against the effects of biological weapons remains a high priority with scientists at Fort Detrick, Linden said. “The body doesn’t have an immune reaction to botulinum, and it leaves no trace in the bloodstream,” she said.

This fact underscores the reasons why prevention through appropriate vaccines, combined with advanced distance detection and speedy, accurate communications, are all imperatives, concluded Linden.

At Dahlgren, Va., south of Washington, D.C., the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NAVSEA) is developing a way to identify chemical-biological agents from a distance, thus adding to the safety margin for both military combat personnel and emergency medical teams responding to disasters, said Mike Abaie, director of the program, which is called Artemis.

The program borrows its name from Artemis, the Greek goddess, “the protector of nature, youth and other wild things,” said Abaie.

When operational, this system will advance protection to a higher level by using up-to-date chemical-biological sensing devices that connected to the latest analyzing software for faster identification results, Abaie explained. Sensors presently come in different sizes and shapes and possess various levels of capability, he said.

“Our object is eventually to detect and [identify] from a range of zero to 40 kilometers,” he said.

The Navy has been designated the lead agency on the project, but Artemis is a joint team project, Abaie stressed. To help insure that the new system can be used by all of the organizations that need it, advice for designing its components will be sought directly from military personnel and their counterparts in civilian law-enforcement and fire and rescue units, he said.

Artemis is still in the planning and evaluation stage, but is nearing Milestone I certification, which is important because it allows work on this advanced detection system to proceed, Abaie said.

One unique feature that the program offers is the ability to switch automatically from search and detection, to tracking and identification of chemical-biological compounds or gases, he said.

These functions include mapping and monitoring chemical cloud—or plume—direction. This involves constructing models of wind-current directions and predicting where toxic substances may drift in the aftermath of a chemical-biological attack or incident.

Another important identification capability will be the ability to make surface contamination predictions—analyzing soil samples—while on the move, said Abaie. Artemis will also lower the false-alarm rate, by using more efficient and accurate sensors and on-the-spot analyzing capabilities. In addition, the system must be minimum weight and size, Abaie said.

Merging Systems
Planners intend to merge Artemis with the planned Joint Warning and Reporting Network (JWARN) system, Abaie explained. This will make an advanced detection, identification and warning system more readily available to a widening circle of military and civilian chemical-biological incident-containment units. These organizations currently possess widely disparate capabilities that hinder joint operations because everybody has different equipment, said Abaie.

Artemis isn’t projected for production until 2007, but Abaie is optimistic that it will meet that deadline. “[Fortunately]...detection is an area that is receiving most of the money,” Abaie said.

JWARN is being developed by the Marine Corps to meet the combined needs of all four services. When complete, JWARN will link nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) sensors with other mission application software and is interfaced with command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems employed throughout the services, explained program manager Tony Alley.

“The object is to create a more complete, real-time operational picture of the NBC battlespace than presently exists,” he said. Besides assisting with NBC battle management, Alley said, JWARN will permit a better understanding of potential dangers by using what he called, “downwind prediction models.”

“The primary mission of JWARN will be to provide a joint force with a comprehensive response capability that would minimize the effects of either a hostile NBC attack or an industrial incident,” Alley stated.

Basically, JWARN will have to possess a two-way interface capability with any present or future C4ISR systems, he continued. It must also be able to collect, generate and edit NBC reports, which will then be formatted and transmitted within two minutes after the first detection of an NBC substance. In addition, it will be necessary for JWARN to be integrated with all currently existing legacy detectors and sensors, Alley added.

JWARN completed Block I Fielding tests in May 1998, and successfully cleared its Interim Program Review (IPR) in February 2000, said Alley. It should enter its engineering, manufacturing, development (EMD) phase in January 2001, he said. This stage of development is scheduled to last through 2003, with production scheduled to begin in early 2004.

The estimated value of the Block II production contract could be $80 million, he said.

The biggest technical barriers, Alley said, are “multiple C4ISR platforms” that currently exist across the services, “with varying interface requirements.”

Overcoming this interoperability problem is one of the greatest challenges, he said, appealing to private industry partners for help.

The JWARN device must stay small and lightweight, have multiple power sources and universal mounting capability and be NBC survivable, he said.

Topics: Chem Bio Protection, Research and Development, DARPA, Science and Engineering Technology

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