WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2014 —
Since 2009, when a Pentagon memo to military department secretaries announced that emerging infectious diseases would become part of the chemical and biological defense mission, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency has worked to advance its biosurveillance capabilities.
Biosurveillance, at least for the Defense Department, is the process of gathering, integrating, analyzing and communicating a range of information that relates to health threats for people, animals and even plants, to help protect troops worldwide, and to increase global health security.
Such advance knowledge comes from monitoring the environment, monitoring medical and clinical disease reporting worldwide, monitoring the many networks established for collecting and distributing disease information, and most recently monitoring social media and online services for crowd-sourced infectious disease news.
The planet’s largest outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in West Africa is the latest example of how an infectious disease in one area can become a major international security issue.
Countries have reported 17,551 cases so far and 6,202 deaths from Ebola, according to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.
Preparing for Threat Events
“We work with a lot of interagency partners because [biosurveillance] is a big mission space, it's not something any single agency can cover all on its own,” Dr. Ronald K. Hann Jr., director of research and development in DTRA’s Chemical and Biological Technologies Department, told DoD News during a recent interview.
“We work with DARPA and some of our other interagency partners,” he added, “to make sure we're really covering biosurveillance in the country and overseas, to see if there are events we need to be aware of and how to prepare [if] we have to respond to any kind of crisis.”
For the warfighter, biosurveillance offers DTRA a way to identify early on that something is occurring, Hann added, “so we can move diagnostics or therapeutics forward to the battlefield to see who is affected and how to adequately respond.”
Hann likens biosurveillance to the kind of remote monitoring of serious weather events that meteorologists do.
“If you think about how hurricanes work, [meteorologists] look off the coast and see in Africa that a storm is beginning to brew, and it starts to move across the Atlantic over time. You know that it's going to make landfall in the States but you're not sure where,” Hann said.
On the Horizon
Biosurveillance works in a similar way, he explained.
“We can watch overseas or within our own country,” Hann said, “to see if something will emerge as an infectious disease that's going to have an impact on the nation.”
As an outbreak begins to develop, he said, “we can make sure we have adequate resources to respond, and when we respond we can be much more focused.”
Though the Ebola outbreak took most of the world by surprise, Hann said DTRA began seeing the threat several months in advance.
“Even though the biosurveillance tools we have are really prototypes, we could see that there was an emerging threat on the horizon,” Hann said, “and we’ve been steadily engaged ever since.”
DTRA’s Early Response
The initial West Africa Ebola outbreak began in December, Hann said, just around the time the first formulation of the experimental Ebola drug ZMapp was finalized.
Mapp Biopharmaceutical now is manufacturing the Ebola treatment, but for several years before that DTRA, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases had been funding studies and working to prove the validity of ZMapp’s monoclonal antibody technology.
By March, Doctors without Borders, already on the ground in West Africa, contacted a DTRA researcher about the drug.
“We had just completed two nonhuman-primate trials indicating that ZMapp might be useful,” Hann said, “and in the March timeframe we prepositioned one ZMapp regimen, or three doses, in Geneva for [Doctors Without Borders’] use in theater.”
Potential National Impact
In June, DTRA elements “started to talk about how we could potentially have an impact on [the outbreak] and we established a technical team here within DTRA to evaluate what we were seeing [and] what we had in inventory that would be useful,” Hann said.
Also in June, DTRA reached out through its collaboration with CDC to partner with them. At the time, CDC also was starting to respond to the Ebola outbreak, and Doctors Without Borders announced that the outbreak was out of control.
“For us,” Hann said, “that was the big signal that the Ebola outbreak was something that could have a national impact.”
One of the outbreak-response tools DTRA developed is called the ebolaportal.org, to be used by nongovernmental organizations, the governments of nations most affected by the Ebola outbreak, and DoD labs involved in the U.S. outbreak response.
A larger effort, developed by the Joint Program Executive Office, was accelerated and just now is gaining initial operating capability, Hann said. It’s called the biosurveillance portal.
“You can think of it as a ladder,” he added. “The portal is an unclassified [online] entry point where you can come in and get information on diseases around the world on a secure unclassified network.”
Hann said the portal was brought out recently during the U.S.-South Korea tabletop anti-bioterrorism exercise called Able Response.
“At DTRA we develop [applications] that will hang on the ladder,” he added, such as an app that does predictive analysis to estimate the path of an infectious disease, and others that are available in an app store.
Right now, Hann said, the biosurveillance portal is limited to U.S. government users, “but somebody can get on there and get the latest situation report from our diagnostic lab in place X.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)