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DOD Supports Partner Nations With COVID-19 Mitigation Assistance

June 1, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

The Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has supported COVID-19 requests for assistance from 13 nations totaling about $2.9 million, said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction David Lasseter, whose office provides strategic guidance for the program to ensure mission alignment with broader National Defense Strategy objectives.

A woman places a pathogen sample into a test tube.
Pathogen Sample
An Armenian laboratory technician at the Ministry of Health's central facility in Yerevan, Armenia, emplaces a pathogen sample into a test tube within the confines of a biosafety cabinet.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200601-D-ZZ999-3333

This recent support is part of the department's ongoing efforts to counter biological weapons of mass destruction threats. The DOD CTR Program works cooperatively with international partners to mitigate WMD-related threats to the U.S. homeland, U.S. forces abroad, and U.S. partners and allies. This includes biological, nuclear, and chemical weapons and related delivery systems. 

With regard to biological threats, the program has partnered with more than 30 countries since 2004 to improve their ability to detect, diagnose and report the spread of especially dangerous pathogens. It has accomplished this through training, information exchanges, scientific partnerships, providing equipment, and laboratory construction. It works across sectors to help partner scientists and technicians safeguard pathogen samples held in laboratory facilities against accidental or intentional release, promote research collaboration, and facilitate trainings and best practices.

Laboratory technicians work at a biosafety cabinet.
Pathogen Handling
Laboratory technicians handle a potentially dangerous pathogen using a biosafety cabinet at the Republic of Georgia's central reference lab in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200601-D-ZZ999-7777

Partner nations are now leveraging these capabilities developed over the last 15-plus years as part of their COVID-19 preparedness and response efforts. Laboratory facilities that CTR previously helped partner nations construct or renovate are playing a particularly crucial role, Lasseter said. These facilities, fully owned and operated by the partner nation, are often the central facility in a country or region running diagnostic tests and research for COVID-19. For example: 

  • Georgia's National Center for Disease Control and Public Health in Tbilisi is running COVID-19 diagnostic tests and sharing COVID-19 research and procedures with other partners in the region;
  • Ukraine's Public Health Center’s Emergency Operation Center is sharing outbreak data and practices for safe and effective COVID-19 diagnosis and reporting; and
  • Armenia's Health Ministry, through its network of biological analysis laboratories, is conducting analyses of COVID-19 samples.

The DOD CTR Program also is supporting foreign partner requests for assistance to help stem the spread of COVID-19. These vary from requests for information and subject matter expertise to requests for diagnostics support and personal protective equipment. For example, between March 19 and April 7, Azerbaijan's Ministry of Health requested 400 protective goggles and masks, 51 infrared thermometers, 200 disposable coveralls, and 2.4 tons of disinfectant, all of which the DOD CTR Program provided by April 10.

Screenshot of Ukrainian COVID-19 tracking.
Ukraine COVID Dashboard
A screenshot of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine's central COVID-19 dashboard provides transparency of the case-reporting situation in Ukraine. At https://covid19.gov.ua, the site was developed by the Ministry of Digital Transformation and is available in Ukrainian and English.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200601-D-ZZ999-4444

More generally, he explained, a unique aspect of the program involves helping a partner nation's military and civilian components improve cross-ministerial communication and capability to address biological threats that are of concern to both the host nation and the U.S.   

A long-standing principle of the DOD CTR Program is extending that spirit of cooperation across geographic borders, supporting regional biosurveillance networks to enable a coordinated and timely response to disease outbreaks. These efforts have helped stem the spread of COVID-19.

Three women and a man work at a biosafety cabinet.
Lab Technicians
Armenian specialists at the Ministry of Health's central facility in Yerevan, Armenia, observe a laboratory technician handling a sample of an especially dangerous pathogen using a biosafety cabinet.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200601-D-ZZ999-2222

For example, the Biosurveillance Network of the Silk Road, a regional network of health science experts from a range of countries, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine, coordinates with DOD CTR subject matter experts on best practices for safe and effective disease diagnosis and reporting.

''Given the work we have done with these countries, BNSR members have shared with one another COVID-19 outbreak data, diagnosis and reporting,'' said Dr. Robert Pope, director of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

Laboratory technicians work at a biosafety cabinet.
Biosafety Cabinet
Laboratory technicians handle a potentially dangerous pathogen using a biosafety cabinet at the Republic of Georgia's central reference lab in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200601-D-ZZ999-5555

The DOD CTR Program also is helping partner nations implement the Electronic Integrated Disease Support System, which facilitates the collection and analysis of infectious disease information across medical, veterinary and environmental health communities. ''Several countries are now using EIDSS to quickly report COVID-19 cases,'' Pope noted.

''DOD remains firmly committed to working with partners and allies to achieve U.S. WMD threat reduction goals, even in light of COVID-19,'' Lasseter said. ''Threats around the world have not paused, and neither will we.''