Friday, August 31, 2012

DOD Partners With Cities, Countries On Biosurveillance

In line with the first National Biosurveillance Strategy released last month, the Defense Department is working with U.S. cities and countries around the world to enhance capabilities needed to detect and track a range of natural or intentional global disease outbreaks.

Sandia National Laboratory researcher Mark Tucker examines two petri dishes in 1999. On the left is one with a simulant of anthrax growing in it and on the right is one treated with the decontaminating formulation developed at Sandia.
Photo by Randy Montoya, courtesy of Sandia National Laboratory

Biosurveillance involves using experts and a range of technologies to systematically gather, analyze and interpret data related to disease activity and threats to human and animal health for early warning and detection.

Though the strategy is new, a range of national policy documents has addressed biosurveillance, beginning in 2007 with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 21. The directive defined biosurveillance and discussed the need for a national capability.

In 2009, objectives stated in the National Strategy for Countering Biological Attacks sought to protect against the misuse of the life sciences to support biological weapons proliferation and terrorism. And the National Security Strategy of 2010 noted the ability of emerging infectious diseases to cross borders and threaten national security.

“DOD’s involvement in biosurveillance goes back probably before DOD to the Revolutionary War,” Andrew C. Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, told American Forces Press Service.

“We didn’t call it biosurveillance then, but monitoring and understanding infectious disease has always been our priority, because for much of our history, we’ve been a global force,” he added.

Today, as part of its effort to prepare for microbial storms unleashed by nature and by adversaries, DOD works internationally and domestically to improve global biosurveillance cooperation, Weber said.

“While we worry a lot about nonstate actors launching a bioterrorist attack,” he added, “we also have to worry about rogue states like [North] Korea, Iran and Syria that have biological/chemical weapons programs.”

To enhance biodefense capabilities on the Korean peninsula, Weber said DOD and South Korea launched the Able Response exercise in May 2011 and ran it again in May 2012.

“This is a whole-of-government to whole-of-government tabletop exercise focused on a biological incident, not during a conventional war but some type of a covert release, … that could have a major impact on the civilian population … but also on our 28,000 forces deployed on the peninsula,” the assistant secretary said.

At the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Ryan Madden is a science and technology manager in the chemical and biological technologies directorate’s physical science and technology division. Since 2007, DTRA, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies have worked with the cities of Seattle and Denver, and now are working along with the State Department and with Poland on biosurveillance exercises, Madden told American Forces Press Service.

The first exercise, called the Interagency Biological Restoration Demonstration, or IBRD, ran from 2007 to 2010 in Seattle, he said, calling the demonstration “a very unique partnership” between DOD and Homeland Security.

The exercise was prompted by anthrax attacks that killed five people in the United States in 2001, Madden said.

The scenario involved a large biological anthrax release in a large city. The objective, he explained, was to get “from the baseline of more than 10 years for restoration [of the city after the attack] to a manageable number [of months or years for anthrax cleanup] that allows the city to maintain some form of viability.”

IBRD was conducted in partnership with the Seattle King County Urban Area Security Initiative, Madden said, “and at the end of the program, we had a number of toolsets for decision support or efficacy.”

The IBRD team had done studies on the efficacy of various solutions on bacillus anthracis -- the bacterium that causes anthrax -- on various surfaces, Madden said. “So there was technical data and decision toolsets that help you use that data to inform sampling approaches or decontamination strategies,” he added.

As a result of the exercise, he said, “the [Seattle Urban Area Security Initiative], and their partnership with Joint Base Lewis-McChord as a key military installation there, have a regional consequence management plan that addresses catastrophic biological incidents.”

For a large city like Seattle, the community resilience factor -- based on how long leases and businesses can stay viable if people can’t get to work -- is about six months. “And we’re still not at six months,” Madden said.

Last year, Homeland Security took the lead, working with DOD, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services in a follow-on effort in Denver, Madden said, working with the Denver Urban Area Security Initiative.

The Denver recovery and resilience program, which wraps up this year, “expanded on IBRD with anthrax, but added a blister agent and a radiological dispersion device, and it still focuses on physical contamination [and cleanup],” the science and technology manager said.

During the Denver program, Madden added, “we started looking at how this could apply in working with a partner nation.”

The international effort began in October as a partnership among DOD, the State Department, Homeland Security and Poland.

“I think [it] ties very closely with both the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats as well as the National Strategy for Biosurveillance,” Madden said, both of which recommend leveraging international collaboration.

Between October 2011 and September 2014, the exercise will use the release of two agents -- one contagion and one environmentally persistent biothreat -- to develop and demonstrate a capability for resilience in countering a threat that affects U.S. and Polish civilians and military personnel and key infrastructure, Madden said.

“[The international effort] is a capability integration and demonstration program, so we’re looking at technical feasibility and then operational utility,” he added. “We’re working so the U.S. European Command, and warfighters are part of it. And later in the program, [we’ll have] field demonstrations and utility assessments.”

The first technical demonstration will be held in August 2013, he said, and the second in the early spring of 2014.

The final operational demonstration, involving the 773rd Civil Support Team in Germany, Eucom assets and Polish officials working together, will be in September 2014, Madden said. In the meantime, he added, “we’re funding Sandia National Laboratory to help with a methodology and a toolset we call Threat Probability to Action. The big gap we’re trying to bridge is between earlier warning and rapid response.

“The quicker you’re warned about something and the quicker you can make decisions about what to do,” he said, “all of that has an impact on [saving lives].”

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