The Defense Department has embarked on a multi-hundrcd-million dollar effort to protect troops from bioterrorism. Its strategy focuses on containing potential outbreaks in areas of the world where pathogens are known to exist.
"What we're trying to do is build lines of defense between the terrorists who have made it very clear that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction--and who have made it very clear that they'll use them on the American people--and the pathogens," said Ken Myers, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the U.S. Strategic Command Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction.
The task is not new for the agency, which is responsible for dispatching teams under the auspices of the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program to dismantle post-Cold War nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the former Soviet Union. But one of the newer thrusts, the cooperative biological engagement program, is rapidly growing its reach, said Myers.
"It's because we're learning a lot more about potential threats in continents and areas other than the former Soviet Union," he told National Defense.
In regions including Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, teams are discovering that local health clinics possess deadly pathogens not necessarily as potential weapons, but because they need to have samples of naturally-occurring diseases on hand to diagnose outbreaks in their human and animal populations.
The problem though is that the samples are often kept in public repositories where the microbes easily could be swiped and released, intentionally or accidentally.
"We're looking for partners in new areas around the world who have legitimate need for maintaining samples of these horrible diseases and pathogens," said Myers. "We are looking for ways to partner with them to increase their ability to keep them secure and safe, to be able to account for them so they know exactly how many strains of pathogen X or pathogen Y or pathogen Z they might have."
In some of these locations, the effort is not so much about building million-dollar laboratories but rather establishing safety protocols in existing infrastructure. Providing relatively inexpensive security measures, such as locks and bars on windows, or installing computer tracking systems, such as barcodes and scanners, can help clinics safeguard and monitor their specimens.
"We're talking about providing capability which the host country can sustain, maintain and use," Myers said.
Along with upgrading the facilities' security infrastructure, the agency also wants to help partner nations beef up biosurveillance capability.
"By definition, we have to have a product that's easy to use because we want to encourage people in remote locations around the world to share the information. We're looking at products that could potentially be used with cell phones, or PDAs, or laptops," Myers said.
In addition, the cooperative biological engagement teams also assist with epidemiological training so that the partner nations' scientists and medical specialists can be effective and efficient at identifying outbreaks and alerting the proper authorities.
The Defense Department is establishing medical research facilities to help foster opportunities to engage with the international community on matters including biosurveillance and disease detection. One such facility, U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit-6, was recently commissioned in Lima, Peru. Its outpost is in Iquitos, at the mouth of the Amazon River, said Alan Rudolph, director of the chemical and biological technologies directorate at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. …