By Cheryl Pellerin
(Released 3 February 2016) Washington, D.C. - Keeping warfighters safe from infectious diseases and chemical agents is a Defense Department effort that requires a range 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 CBDP, is an early and critical part of the effort. Dr. D. Christian Hassell, deputy assistant secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense, leads the program.
Hassell, an analytic chemist and former director of the FBI Laboratory, oversees the department’s chem-bio program.
Chem-Bio Threats One of his jobs is to coordinate the development of tools and capabilities that help warfighters prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from chem-bio threats and effects.
To do that, Hassell works with CBDP components such as 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 for Chemical and Biological Defense.
Hassell also works closely with the interagency and international partners to coordinate a range of efforts that involve protecting service members and DoD civilians wherever they are in the world.
Monitoring the World Rather than dividing the program into chem and bio, Hassell told DoD News in a recent interview, “my office is organized [as] … a physical team and a medical team, [depending on] whether we're looking at the external protection versus the internal protection.”
He added, “The external or physical team does things like [personal protection] suits, protective shelter and detectors, and there they look both at chem and bio.”
On the medical or internal team, Hassell explained, “they're looking at diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutic drugs,” also for chem and bio applications.
Hassell and his team don’t monitor the world for chem-bio threats, he said. “We develop the tools that enable” those who do, he added.
Countermeasures and Defenses Such tools include diagnostics and chemical and biological detectors that nearly anyone could use in an emergency to quicklyentify 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.
Early Warning 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.
“Wherever possible you try to [create] an integrated system, so that 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.”
Ebola Defense That was the case in 2014-2015 when the Ebola outbreak surged through West Africa and no vaccine or drug was available. But as part of the DoD medical countermeasures program, scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, had been working for years on vaccines for historically rare and fatal diseases such as Ebola.
By 2014, the USAMRIID scientists had created and begun testing a three-strain vaccine candidate that contained the Ebola Zaire strain that caused the West Africa outbreak, the Sudan virus Ebola strain, and Marburg virus, another lethal virus in the same filovirus group as Ebola.
To save lives, the scientists spun off Ebola Zaire in a separate vaccine candidate program to move it quickly forward.
Diagnostics and Drugs The countermeasures program also developed Ebola diagnostic kits and did early work on the Ebola drug ZMapp.
“We provided a lot of the initial funding [for ZMapp] and we did a lot of the earlier technical development in it,” Hassell said, noting that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Canadian government were involved in testing and fielding the drug in its early stages.
The National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and DTRA also invested in ZMapp and the vesicular-stomatitis vaccine that is now in clinical trials.
ZMapp, being developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical and on a fast track for FDA for approval, is an experimental drug made from monoclonal antibodies licensed from USAMRIID and a Canadian biodefense company. The drug’s proteins are grown in the cells of tobacco plants, a technology funded beginning in 2009 by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Future Threats 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 said, he works closely with intelligence organizations such as the National Center for Medical Intelligence at Fort Detrick.
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.”