Early Warning: Brought to you by the DoD Chem-Bio Defense Program

Members of the British armed forces, assigned to different NATO units, walk and adjust their General Service Respirators inside the U.S. Army Training Support Center Benelux chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear chamber on Chièvres Air Base, Belgium, Jan. 19, 2016. British forces assigned to NATO trained under supervision of the British Joint European Training Team. (U.S. Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Pierre-Etienne Courtejoie / Released)

Members of the British armed forces, assigned to different NATO units, walk and adjust their General Service Respirators inside the U.S. Army Training Support Center Benelux chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear chamber on Chièvres Air Base, Belgium, Jan. 19, 2016. British forces assigned to NATO trained under supervision of the British Joint European Training Team. (U.S. Army photo by Visual Information Specialist Pierre-Etienne Courtejoie / Released)

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Keeping warfighters safe from infectious diseases and chemical agents is a Defense Department effort that calls for all kinds of capabilities — from global biosurveillance and quick response to medical countermeasures and interagency and international collaboration.

At the Pentagon, the Chemical and Biological Defense Program, or, is an early and critical part of that effort.

Dr. D. Christian Hassell leads the program. He’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense. And he’s an analytic chemist and former director of the FBI Laboratory.

One of his jobs is to coordinate the development of tools and capabilities that help warfighters prevent, protect against, respond to or recover from chem-bio threats and effects.

Hassell said he and his team don’t monitor the world for chem-bio threats, they develop the tools that make it possible for others to do that.

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line). NIAID photo

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line). NIAID photo

To begin developing these tools and the life-saving chem-bio medical countermeasures that protect the troops, Hassell works with CBDP components like the Joint Science and Technology Office for Chemical and Biological Defense at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, or DTRA, and the Joint Program Executive Office, or JPEO, for Chemical and Biological Defense.

Hassell also works closely with other government agencies and with international partners to help protect service members and DoD civilians wherever they are in the world.

These tools include diagnostics and chemical and biological detectors that nearly anyone could use in an emergency to quickly identify pathogens and disease.

The CBDP oversees development of medical countermeasures to protect warfighters against disease and chemical threats.

Another tool in development is global biosurveillance using a technical architecture of tools that include advanced diagnostic, detection, information management and analytics technologies.

The ideal kind of biosurveillance — still some years in the future — is global real-time biosurveillance.

Today in the chem-bio world early warning is the best protection for warfighters, Hassell said, and global biosurveillance is the best way to see a problem developing.

“For many years we ranked things by particular agents– which gas, which bug, are we most worried about. [Today] … we try to look at that holistically,” he added.

The program doesn’t put all its efforts into just one virus or chemical agent. It’s impossible to know which one could be developed as a weapon or could arise in a pandemic.

JPEO graphic

Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense graphic

“Wherever possible you try to [create] an integrated system, so that [a] mask will protect an individual against as broad a spectrum [as possible] of chemical agents. Or [making] sure a vaccine can protect against as many strains as possible,” Hassell said.

“For some organisms, if we develop a vaccine for one specific strain and then it mutates, the vaccine may no longer work and that wouldn’t be practical,” Hassell explained. “You’d have to vaccinate against every bug, every year for every person.”

To prepare for future threats, Hassell said, CBDP seeks to develop sensors and other detectors, diagnostics, drugs and vaccines that are as broadly applicable as possible.

To understand future threats, Hassell and he works closely with intelligence organizations like the National Center for Medical Intelligence at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

With NCMI and others, Hassell “sees the current threat environment, how [it’s] changing as far as different chemical compounds, different organisms that someone may be taking an interest in, who is taking an interest and what’s our relationship to them,” he added.

“We continually look at that evolving picture,” he said. “We just need to make sure we stay abreast of that [and] prioritize our efforts so they respond to the highest risk elements, buying down the risk.”

In the next several blog posts, watch for more news about the DoD biosurveillance enterprise.

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