WASHINGTON, December 8, 2014 —
The Defense Department agency whose mission is to reduce biological, chemical and other threats to troops worldwide began ramping up its response early in the Ebola outbreak and now, with many partners, is steadily building capabilities in Liberia as it extends capacity into Sierra Leone and Mali.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency, known as DTRA, protects the United States and its allies from chemical, biological, nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.
The fast-moving nature of West Africa’s Ebola crisis, which so far accounts for 17,145 cases of Ebola virus disease and at least 6,070 deaths, according to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has driven the need for constant, close collaboration within DTRA itself and among U.S. agencies, entities such as U.S. Africa Command, international organizations and private companies.
One of Many Stakeholders
DTRA Deputy Director Air Force Maj. Gen. John P. Horner recently spoke with DoD News about DTRA’s Ebola response in support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, the U.S. lead for Ebola efforts in West Africa.
“DTRA is one of many stakeholders -- we are not necessarily the lead for any of this,” Horner said. “But between our [research, testing, development and evaluation] efforts and providing protective gear, diagnostic capabilities and vaccines, to modeling and analysis and data-sharing capabilities, we’ve made a lot of contributions” with a range of partners.
These include CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Department’s Biosecurity Engagement Program, many other U.S. interagency partners, and international partners that include the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders.
Together, DTRA and its partners provide support to Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa and contribute assay development and laboratory services, funding and capacity building to fight this and future deadly outbreaks.
In the Realm of Basic Research
Dr. Ronald K. Hann Jr., director of research and development in the Chemical and Biological Technologies Department, described the process for DTRA’s work on Ebola diagnostic assays.
“Here at DTRA we work in the realm of basic research up through developing prototypes, but we aren't the ones who do the follow-on procurement, life-cycle management or distribution,” he explained.
“We try to anticipate threats in the future and make sure we have resources prepared to meet those threats,” Hann added.
As products progress, DTRA works directly with its DoD acquisition partner, the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense in Maryland, or with interagency partners such as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, part of HHS, and the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID.
“We work in an early discovery role, up through prototypes,” Hann said. “Often we’re looking to answer the question, can I do a certain thing, not necessarily whether it’s the best or cheapest way to do it. Looking to make something more cost efficient or how to mass produce it, those are questions that go on to our interagency partners … who carry the product further.”
Threat Detection and Surveillance
Dr. Richard Schoske, chief of the diagnostic detection and threat surveillance division in the Chemical and Biological Technologies Department, described DTRA’s role in diagnostic development.
As far back as 2010, Schoske said, the agency and its advanced developers funded and developed more than seventy assays to detect 19 different pathogens such as hemorrhagic fever viruses like Ebola and Marburg that are both filoviruses.
The assays received pre-Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Pre-EUA is a step toward EUA, which allows unapproved medical products to be used in an emergency to diagnose, treat or prevent serious diseases.
Generally, Schoske said, DTRA provides funding to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, and scientists there do further development and present packages of information about the assays to the advanced developer -- the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense.
Then the JPEO-CBD and DTRA’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program, or CBEP, partners fund the manufacturing, procurement and distribution to analytic laboratories like the ones DTRA is putting in place in Liberia, Schoske said.
“Those are the assays currently being used by laboratories, in West Africa,” he added.
Labs in Sierra Leone, Assessment in Mali
Now, at Sierra Leone’s request and with CBEP funding and DTRA’s international partners, the agency is moving two contractor-staffed diagnostic labs into Sierra Leone and helping build capacity in that country to deal with Ebola and other infectious diseases.
CBEP division chief Dr. Lance Brooks said the labs will go out in stages. One is expected to be ready by the end of December and full operating capability is expected by early January.
Also in the region, DTRA, with CDC and the State Department’s Biosecurity Engagement Program, has sent an assessment team to Mali, the most recent West African country affected by the Ebola epidemic.
Major General Horner said one of DTRA’s most critical capabilities as a combat support agency is “our agility in terms of working with our lawmakers and colleagues at the Pentagon to get money programmed and on a contract in a hurry.”
He added, “As part of [President Barack Obama’s] Global Health Security Agenda we will sustain our efforts and the capabilities we are putting forward into the future as part of our medical countermeasures-biosurveillance effort.”
Dr. Ronald Meris, branch chief for DTRA Technical Reachback, where modeling is performed for Ebola and other infectious diseases, said, “If we could go out on a limb I would say our modeling is showing that the U.S. government response is making a difference in West Africa.”
He added, “I would say the rate of uptick is lower with each bit of interdiction we do to help combat this [outbreak] and build capacity in the countries. So I'm not going to say that it's a good news story yet but I'm saying the response is taking hold.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)