A highly trained team of soldier-scientists who are part of an Army expeditionary laboratory unit is deploying to Liberia for up to a year to establish four labs outside Monrovia and contribute to the U.S. effort to halt Ebola outbreaks in West Africa.
The 1st Area Medical Laboratory is part of the Army’s 20th CBRNE Command based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The 20th CBRNE’s soldiers combat chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats facing the nation. The 1st AML deploys worldwide in support of joint and combined operations to protect U.S. forces through disease surveillance and environmental testing to determine threats and environmental health hazards.
Army Col. Patrick M. Garman, 1st AML commander, spoke with DoD News about the 22-member, one-of-a-kind unit that consists of microbiologists, biochemists and laboratory technicians.
Ebola Surveillance, Sample Testing
All will conduct Ebola surveillance and test patient samples for the disease in four laboratories that the unit will set up in different locations outside Monrovia, the Liberian capital.
“We’re an organic [U.S. Army Forces Command] unit,” Garman said. “That means we are not pulled together from a fixed facility, research organization or large medical center. We live, train and work together as a unit. So the 1st Area Medical Laboratory is a FORSCOM organization that's built for this type of expeditionary mission.”
The deploying unit also has a small headquarters element with support personnel, a noncommissioned officer to run a tactical operations center, and the commander, his sergeant major and an executive officer whose Army specialty is laboratory management.
Garman has a pharmacy doctorate and has worked as a pharmacist, and he also holds a doctorate in epidemiology.
For ongoing technical training, the unit has an “enduring relationship” with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland, the colonel said. “When it comes to the biologic piece, whether it's infectious endemic disease or biowarfare, historically USAMRIID has been our reach-back organization, or the organization that helps ensure that we get high-quality training for our soldiers,” he added.
Garman said that when the unit learned of its Liberia mission, USAMRIID stepped forward and offered additional Ebola-specific training at its laboratory.
Farther From Monrovia Than Other Labs
When the unit arrives in Monrovia at the beginning of November, the colonel said, the four Ebola testing laboratories it will set up will be farther away from Monrovia than other laboratories that already are in place. “That's OK with us,” he said. “That's what we do. So … we will push out those individual laboratories to wherever we’re going to be.”
The unit has tactical containers that can be set up as laboratories, but Garman said he thinks the four teams on this mission will use existing structures.
“We’re setting up under the Joint Task Command of the 101st [Airborne] Division, so we'll be part of the task force and we’ll ensure that the outlying bases we set up are provided with all the things we're used to in the U.S. Army -- force protection, good living conditions and food and water,” the colonel said.
In Liberia, each laboratory will receive samples that have been taken from patients at hospitals around the region, then packaged and paired with documentation before being transported to the labs. Garman said the need to transport the samples many miles over poorly maintained roads prompted the expeditionary unit’s mission of setting up more labs in areas that are closer and easier to reach than are the main laboratories in Monrovia.
Each of the four labs has a team of three specialists, he said:, a microbiologist, a noncommissioned officer and a junior enlisted soldier, all trained as lab specialists.
Unit Travels With Its Own Equipment
The unit travels with its own equipment, including a Class 3 biosafety glove box that allows technicians to prepare, decontaminate and inactivate, or kill, whatever is in a sample. Afterward, technicians move the processed samples into a biosafety cabinet that has special filters and whose air flows away from the technician.
In the biosafety cabinet, a technician prepares a sample for processing in a real-time polymerase-chain-reaction, or PCR, system that identifies and tests the sample. Once the sample is deactivated, Garman explained, “There's an extraction method you use where you put certain solutions into the inactivated sample that help to extract the RNA, or the nucleotides, that the PCR machine actually tests.” The PCR results determine whether the sample contains Ebola, he added.
Garman emphasized that biosafety is the priority in the unit’s work.
“When you're talking about Ebola, just like anthrax or smallpox, you need to keep the laboratory workers safe,” he said. “It's the biosafety levels, the personal protective equipment that you wear, and the equipment you use to [protect] the person who works with the samples. These soldiers volunteered for the military, and they were selected for some pretty high-end training as laboratory technicians.”
The soldiers and the scientists volunteered to be in a field unit, he said, adding that they work hard, they've been out in the field, and they know how to drive a truck, talk on a radio and safely test for chemical or biological weapons.
“These are top-notch American soldiers,” Garman added, “and if their parents or loved ones happen to read your article, I hope they know how much we appreciate what the [unit members] do and how confident we are in their abilities. My leadership and I are honored to be able to lead them and our top responsibility is to keep them safe.”
(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter: @PellerinDoDNews)