Watching & Warning: DTRA’s Biosurveillance Ecosystem

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

The last two pandemics killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

H1N1 flu, from April 2009 to about April 2010, killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Ebola virus disease regional pandemic killed 28,603 in West African countries and 36 in other countries between December 2013 and January 2016, CDC says.

Transmission electron micrograph of H1N1 virus particles. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease photo

Transmission electron micrograph of H1N1 virus particles. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease photo

Probably no one familiar with emerging infectious diseases thinks the response to either outbreak was perfect — but how to improve the response?

And specifically, for the Defense Department, how to protect more than 200,000 troops stationed in 144 countries and territories next time an emerging infectious disease, natural or intentional, goes pandemic?

It’s All About Saving Lives

Monitoring and understanding infectious disease always has been a DoD priority, a former chem-bio official told me back in August 2012, as the White House issued the first U.S. National Strategy for Biosurveillance.

“It’s all about saving lives,” the official said. “The sooner you recognize that a biological event is happening, the greater your ability to isolate it, contain it and prevent it from spreading around the world, like H1N1.”

Today in DoD labs and technical divisions, and in many other federal agencies, lots of programs and technologies contribute to the biosurveillance effort.

Biosurveillance Ecosystem

One technology is the Biosurveillance Ecosystem, or BSVE, a cloud-based science and technology component being developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

DTRA’s Joint Science and Technology Office for the Chemical and Biological Defense Program, called JSTO-CBD, is doing this in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC), and a biomedical software company industry partner.

Biosurveillance Ecosystem logo

Biosurveillance Ecosystem logo

BSVE is an open-architecture web-based service that sits in the cloud and gathers public and private data, DTRA scientists Dr. Chris Kiley and Dr. John Hannan said in a recent interview.

Some of the data being collected includes social media, news reports and public releases from CDC, the World Health Organization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the International Society for Infectious Diseases.

The ISID Internet e-mail service called ProMED is used and contributed to by scientists, physicians, veterinarians, epidemiologists and public health officials from all over the world.

For BSVE, analysts and developers can continuously expand data resources, allowing for the quick integration of new data as a disease event like H1H1 or Ebola unfolds.

BSVE monitors information about infectious diseases that affect people, animals and agriculture, and data about the environment. As we know, it’s all connected.

A Service in the Cloud

BSVE works as a dashboard-like service from the cloud.

Through the browser-based Analyst Workbench, analysts can perform a search through all of the data sources and receive ranked results with relevant data and visualizations highlighted, allowing for a deeper understanding of the event of interest.

The BSVE soon will have a recommender service that offers related information and applications, just like, in a less public-service kind of way, Facebook shows you pictures of shoes you might be interested in based on your searches in other apps.

Click here for more on the BSVE overview slide.

The BSVE alerts an analyst when signals in the data sources indicate that a disease may be arising somewhere above its normal level. The system can be tailored for specific diseases of interest and geographic regions.

Hannan says that other people and organizations can develop apps and data for the system without having to pay someone else to integrate it.

“This capability is vital to the sustainability of the BSVE and offers opportunities for local epidemiologists to analyze data without a large IT burden, and share these tools and data amongst other professionals,” Hannan explained.

For example, Kiley said the global environmental health nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance in New York is developing a BSVE app that looks at airline traffic flying out of Brazil, where Zika virus infections are rising, and uses that info to predict where zika will spread next.

“We’re trying to go beyond that,” Kiley added, “but that’s the first step.”

JSTO is working on other kinds of BSVE inputs, too, like diagnostic devices that transmit de-identified results to the BSVE in real time, letting analysts more quickly assess unfolding events.

Smart Traps for Mosquitoes

JSTO is also working on a smart trap for mosquitoes, because they can carry infectious diseases like Zika and West Nile virus.

CDC mosquito graphic

Mosquito graphic. Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control

Usually, to monitor mosquito-borne diseases, people have to go out to places like shipping docks and catch mosquitoes in little cages, then take them back to the lab, crush them up and do the analysis, getting the results back in two or three weeks.

But a smart trap will collect mosquito saliva in real time and do the analysis right there, no person or lab needed, and send the results to the BSVE.

The smart trap prototype, being developed by Sandia National Laboratory, is up and running and a field trial will test the system this summer for its ability to detect West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis and Western equine encephalitis, Kiley said.

Disease Forecasting & Prediction

Forecasting involves figuring out where an ongoing event will spread, and prediction involves looking at disease spillover from wildlife to people to see how and where the next viral, bacterial or parasitic disease could emerge.

BSVE will help with disease forecasting for people, animals and agriculture, and disease prediction.

About 60 percent of all human infectious diseases and 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases that have affected people over the past 30 years have come from animals, the World Health Organization says. These include flu, SARS, Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and zika.

Kiley said JSTO-CBD is looking to expand the BSVE device-to-cloud diagnostic capability to animal populations, and the next thing they’re exploring is how to leverage personal wearables for biosurveillance.

“Watch-type and other kinds of wearables could provide very useful information,” he said.

This is the second in a series of stories and blog posts about the DoD biosurveillance enterprise.

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Related sitesDefense Threat Reduction Agency

For more on this topic, click here: Early Warning: Brought to you by the DoD Chem-Bio Defense Program

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