The Soviet Union Falls, International Biosurveillance Rises: DTRA’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Christmas Day, 1991. The Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag lowers for the last time over the Kremlin, as the State Department historian tells it. The same day Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as president of the Soviet Union.

Watching as the Soviet Union crumbles into multiple separate nations, a U.S. priority is preventing a nuclear catastrophe involving the vast Soviet nuclear arsenal.

In November that year, Georgia Democrat Senator Sam Nunn and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar propose an amendment to a separate treaty.

They call it the Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991, and in fiscal 1992 it authorizes $400 million in defense funds to help the tottering Soviet Union, and whatever form it takes later, to destroy nuclear, chemical and other weapons, disable them and establish verifiable safeguards against proliferation, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report.

The effort becomes known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and DoD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency takes charge of it.

A shipyard worker uses a cutting torch to breakdown a large bulge section of a Russian Oscar Class submarine at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk, Russia, in 1996. This Russian cruise missile submarine is being dismantled as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The CTRP was the precursor program to the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program. Navy photo by Todd P. Cichonowicz

A shipyard worker uses a cutting torch to breakdown a large bulge section of a Russian Oscar Class submarine at the Zvezdochka shipyard in Severodvinsk, Russia, in 1996. This Russian cruise missile submarine is being dismantled as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The CTRP was the precursor program to the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program. Navy photo by Todd P. Cichonowicz

The Nunn-Lugar CTR program seeks to keep the failing Soviet Union’s nuke and chemical infrastructure from rogue nations and terrorists, but by 1996 Congress expands the program to cover chemical, biological and radiological materials and weapons, and later to help countries beyond the original 15 former Soviet nations.

Over the years DoD’s biological threat reduction program has grown from an effort to dismantle Russia’s biological weapons complex into a tool for promoting best practices at biological labs that use and store dangerous pathogens.

And as part of the effort to upgrade global biosurveillance capabilities in the wake of recent pandemics, the program has evolved to address biological threats worldwide.

A technician with the Navy Medical Research Center starts the process to test blood samples collected from the Ebola treatment unit built as a part of Operation United Assistance in Suakoko, Liberia, Nov. 22, 2014. United Assistance is a Defense Department operation to provide command and control, logistics, training and engineering support to U.S. Agency for International Development-led efforts to contain the Ebola virus outbreak in West African nations. Army Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brien Vorhees, 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera)

A technician with the Navy Medical Research Center starts the process to test blood samples collected from the Ebola treatment unit built as a part of Operation United Assistance in Suakoko, Liberia, Nov. 22, 2014. United Assistance is a Defense Department operation to provide command and control, logistics, training and engineering support to U.S. Agency for International Development-led efforts to contain the Ebola virus outbreak in West African nations. Army Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brien Vorhees, 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera)

Today DTRA’s Cooperative Biological Engagement Program, or CBEP, is engaged with nearly 30 countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

“Over the years the program morphed into helping those partners safeguard and secure any biological material they may have for public health purposes [and] to give them the capability to detect, diagnose and report incidents focusing on weapons of mass destruction, related bioweapons and bio material,” CBEP Division Chief Dr. Lance Brooks says during an interview.

The program also works to make sure partner countries can detect intentional and accidental biological releases and natural outbreaks that can become pandemics threatening U.S. national security, he adds.

In 2009 CBEP moved out of the former Soviet Union and eventually into Africa to address the nexus of terrorist groups and emerging infectious disease increasing on the continent, Brooks said.

“Anywhere you have bad guys and biological material that could be used as a weapon, that’s essentially where we have determination to go,” he added.

When CBEP works with a country, “we make sure their facilities are secure and they work safely with materials so they don’t have an accidental release, and securely so terrorists can’t get their hands on materials,” Brooks explained.

“We also help them assess the biological collections in country and help them eliminate any unnecessary stockpile or consolidate it into more secure facilities. Then we work closely with them to build their disease detection network and integrate that into the public health system,” he said.

CBEP’s partners include WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other international organizations to help countries develop their capacity to detect biothreat materials. CBEP also works  with partners through the Global Health Security Agenda  to ensure that there is a unified approach to health security efforts.

For the public health community, “we want them to be able to detect diseases beyond everyday acute diseases like cholera, tuberculosis and others,” Brooks added, “but it has to be integrated into the everyday job and function they’re doing, otherwise they can’t sustain it.”

CBEP also tries to help build capability beyond facilities and laboratory equipment, he said.

Polish exercise commander Maj. Łukasz Krzowski briefs DTRA’s Ryan Madden on response efforts during the Transatlantic Collaborative Biological Resiliency Demonstration, or TaCBRD, exercise. DTRA led the U.S. government transition of TaCBRD response and resiliency training to Poland. DTRA photo

Polish exercise commander Maj. Łukasz Krzowski briefs DTRA’s Ryan Madden on response efforts during the Transatlantic Collaborative Biological Resiliency Demonstration, or TaCBRD, exercise. DTRA led the U.S. government transition of TaCBRD response and resiliency training to Poland. DTRA photo

“These countries have to have trained epidemiologists to analyze the information and provide it to the countries’ decision makers, who must appropriately respond, he added.

To coordinate CBEP efforts, DTRA maintains defense threat reduction regional offices around the globe, Brooks said, and the CBEP program works extensively with outside experts.

“You have to have people out in the field working with our partner countries,” Brooks said, noting that CBEP also coordinates with an international network of U.S. military laboratories called the Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System to avoid duplicate efforts.

Lt. Kimberly Edgel, left, and Christian Baldeviano examine a positive malaria blood smear at U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit 6 in Cairo, Egypt. NAMRU-6 is studying the interplay between malaria and the human immune system to identify new malaria vaccine targets.

Lt. Kimberly Edgel, left, and Christian Baldeviano examine a positive malaria blood smear at U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit 6 in Cairo, Egypt. NAMRU-6 is studying the interplay between malaria and the human immune system to identify new malaria vaccine targets.

For the countries that still use paper and faxes to send disease information, Brooks says CBEP helps them do electronic reporting so at least within the country data will be available faster.

“Some countries we work with use paper and faxes to send disease information, slowing the notification processes to weeks or months, making it impossible to gather real-time data,” Brooks said.

“When we assist a country we try to get them to do electronic reporting,” he added, “so that at least within the country data will be available more quickly for a coordinated response to mitigate a terrorist attack or prevent a potential pandemic outbreak.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of stories and blog posts about the DoD biosurveillance enterprise.

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Related sites:

Defense Threat Reduction Program
Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (PDF)

Related Armed with Science blog posts:

Watching & Warning: DTRA’s Biosurveillance Ecosystem
Early Warning: Brought to you by the DoD Chem-Bio Defense Program

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