The Defense Department is better prepared to help with the West Africa Ebola outbreak because it has accelerated aspects of its medical countermeasures program established to protect troops from biological warfare agents, Andrew C. Weber said yesterday.
The assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs held a media roundtable yesterday to discuss the accomplishments of his office over the past five years.
Weber is leaving the department this month after 18 years to support the State Department’s Ebola response effort as deputy to Ambassador Nancy Powell, who last month was named to lead State’s Ebola Coordination Unit.
The DoD medical countermeasures program, overseen by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, and formally called Chemical Biological Medical Systems, develops or acquires Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, -approved vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics to protect U.S. forces against chemical and biological threats.
“Ebola has always been on the threat list of agents that we're concerned about,” Weber said, adding that DoD and the Department of Health and Human Services have been the only investors in medical countermeasures for such historically rare contagions as Ebola virus disease.
Among the products whose development or availability the department has accelerated in response to the outbreak in West Africa is a vaccine against the Zaire strain of Ebola that’s causing the epidemic.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Sept. 26 that the FDA had approved the vaccine candidate for safety testing, and Weber said another vaccine candidate is in the pipeline.
The assistant secretary said the vaccine candidate now in Phase I clinical trials, or safety testing, is a monovalent – single-component – vaccine that uses genetically engineered cells from an animal disease called vesicular stomatitis to deliver the vaccine to sick animals or people.
“Both [the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency invested in some of these products,” Weber said, “like ZMapp and the [vesicular stomatitis] vaccine that is in clinical trials.”
ZMapp, being developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., is the experimental drug made from monoclonal antibodies licensed from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, and a Canadian biodefense company. The drug’s vaccine-grade proteins are grown in the cells of tobacco plants.
The tobacco-plant production method was one of several accelerated manufacturing processes created and then developed as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, program called Blue Angel beginning in 2009, the same year the World Health Organization declared H1N1 flu a pandemic virus.
Weber said DoD also developed polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, diagnostics that are being used in the Ebola outbreak response, and a next-generation diagnostic system now produced by BioFire Defense LLC of Utah.
Earlier this year the company announced receiving an eight-year, $240 million DoD contract to expand its FilmArray diagnostics platform into a biowarfare detection system for use across the department.
“In President Obama's first year in office, we had the H1N1 pandemic and it took the United States eight months to make a vaccine available to our public,” Weber said.
As a result, he added, the president launched a medical countermeasures initiative “and we now have a network of advanced development and manufacturing facilities.”
Weber said, “The whole family of programs that we're accelerating now for the Ebola response has been an ongoing investment of this department and the Department of Health and Human Services.”
Getting drugs and vaccines licensed is a long process that’s not commercially profitable, he added, so it's something the government has to do.
“We have a strong partnership with Health and Human Services on our medical countermeasures enterprise so we’re better prepared than we would have been [for the Ebola outbreak],” Weber said. “And we have some unique authorities now for emergency use -- compassionate use -- of some of these countermeasures, like ZMapp.”
Ultimately, he said, vaccines, therapeutics and [drugs such as] antivirals will help stamp out the current outbreak.
In the meantime, Weber added, the world needs a shared biosurveillance system that integrates local disease information, civilian disease information and DoD information about its own military forces.
Countries are required to report disease outbreak information under the international health regulations, he said.
“Using information technologies, including social media, that are available today, we can have real-time disease detection that allows countries to prevent outbreaks or contain them.”
If Mexico had had a better biosurveillance system in place in 2009, H1N1 would not have spread around the world and become a pandemic, Weber said.
“But it was months before Mexico even knew it had a problem inside its borders, and then using Navy technology we were able to identify that strain of virus in San Diego when it crossed the border,” he added.
The key is reducing the time to detect and the time to treat, enabling a better response, and having trained disease detectives available, he said, at least one per 100,000 population.
Looking to the future, Weber said, programs like the Constellation biosurveillance portal are being adapted to the crisis in West Africa.
Constellation is a next-generation information gathering, sharing, analysis, collaboration and visualization system, Weber told the House Armed Services Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee earlier this year.
The biosurveillance portal will provide a platform for sharing information across security domains and revolutionize counter-weapons-of-mass-destruction, or CWMD, knowledge management by offering a dynamic, holistic view of the global CWMD operating environment.
Based on Constellation concepts, he said, “We’ve created ebolaportal.org that will be used by nongovernmental organizations, governments most affected by the Ebola outbreak, and Defense Department laboratories involved in the outbreak response.
Ebola.org, Weber added, brings together multiple data sources and has the analytics to help users understand what’s happening and map the onset and spread of disease facilitate better contact tracing.
“So that's the command-and-control piece that DoD can really contribute to this effort,” he said.
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)