Upgrading Biosurveillance Capabilities on the Korean Peninsula

Led by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD) and supported by the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC), the Joint United States Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition (JUPITR ATD) will respond to needs and requirements in the field of biological defense. While establishing a Biosurveillance Portal (BSP) and assessing Biological Identification Capability Sets (BICS), Environmental Detectors (AED) and an Early Warning Concept, JUPITR ATD will provide unique biological detection capabilities in order to address the demand for stronger biosurveillance capabilities on the Korean Peninsula. Not only against the background of the Ebola Outbreak in West-Africa, the JUPITR ATD program is a highly sophisticated approach in times of need.

Now that the program is running for almost 2 years, IB Consultancy took the opportunity to talk to Dr. Peter Emanuel, ECBC BioSciences Division Chief & JPEO-CBD JUPITR ATD Lead, in order to get an update about the current status quo and respective findings of JUPITR ATD. The interview was held on December 4.

Thank you Dr. Emanuel for taking the time to do this interview. At first we are interested in a basic description of the Jupiter ATD. Could you elaborate a little bit on the demand of a strong biosurveillance capability of the USFK (United States Forces Korea) in particular and the US in general? What was the whole idea behind this program?

So, as you can imagine the cost of a large-scale outbreak or an attack with a bio weapon is significant. The central paradigm of biosurveillance is: “efficient time management saves lives”. Meaning that if you are able to get an early detection and early response, you can mitigate and minimize those costs and get ahead of the curve in terms of response and taking actions.

Biosurveillance is not a new concept, it has bee600px-USFKn articulated in global documents from the US, from the EU. And we only need to look at the recent Ebola outbreak to realize that if we would have recognized the situation in West-Africa, we might have been able to step in earlier – resulting in lower costs and lower regret actions that would have obviated the need for a massive global response.

So you ask the question about USFK and that’s actually a question that comes up all the time in regards to the JUPITR ATD. ‘Well, OK, we understand that you want to test the idea of biosurveillance but why in Korea?’ I can give you a philosophical answer to that, and I can give you a very short answer to that. The philosophical is that if you’re testing an idea, and you can test it anywhere, a circle has to start at a single point. So you choose that point and then you draw your circle, the idea being that, what you designed as a template in Korea could be replicated in AFRICOM in EUCOM, and PACOM.

The short answer is: why not? The reality of the situation is that the senior leadership in the USFK asked for capabilities, and they made themselves available to test these forward-leaning ideas. It is a geopolitically relevant site where we have a high concentration of US assets in a friendly host country. If you’re testing the idea of an ATD concept, where some things will work, and some things may not work, you want to work in an area where you have a receptive host, a geopolitically relevant problem, and the ability to be able to control the situation to some extent.

OK, well understood. Then, let me get to the so-called four legs of the program. What are basically the aims of JUPITR ATD and the areas you’re going to focus on?

The idea behind the JUPITR is that, for many years we have been talking about biosurveillance. JUPITR to this extent really is, the way we would say in America, ‘to put our money where our mouth is’. To try and figure out what is the actual equipment and the process by which we are going to attempt to do biosurveillance. And so, that is easier said than done, it is an incredibly aggressive thing and to be quite honest, nobody has ever attempted to do biosurveillance like this on this kind of a scale before. That’s a pretty heavy lift for an organizational attempt and so in order to manage that very diverse set of challenges, we broke it up in four legs. Those legs support a table that provides support for common capabilities. We put somebody in charge of each of those legs and that is the legs structure you see.

The first leg you asked about is the biosurveillance portal. In a nutshell, the biosurveillance portal is a common workspace where people can come together to share information, to view data output, to communicate, to leverage resources, and they can do that in an unclassified forum. Anywhere in the world from a computer, from an iPhone, from anywhere they can get to the internet. It’s obviously customizable, but the central tenet behind biosurveillance is that it involves a whole of data approach. So having inter-agency, inter-country dynamics allows us to embrace the host countries that we work with and our allies so that they can place their information up there in a non-classified format. There’s a famous saying that ‘a disease doesn’t recognize lines on a map’, and for that reason, biosurveillance has to be a community solution. The biosurveillance portal facilitates that sense of community. The biosurveillance portal is customizable. You can turn off some information to some people. It is a very versatile platform that allows information sharing, but also protects the rights and the needs of each of the members that participate. Now I’m going to back up for just a second, Alexander, and I’m going to explain you more about ATD’s if you’re not familiar.

ATDs are, in a simplistic view, an incredibly advanced experiment. And, like any experiment there’s outcome. Sometimes you try something and it doesn’t work at all, but that still tells you what not to do. Sometimes you try to do something but if you do it a little differently the next time, it might work out. The best possible outcome is that if you try something brand new and it works spectacularly and you create something where nothing existed before. The biosurveillance portal is just a perfect example of that. It has already succeeded and has become, what we call ‘a program of record’. So the biosurveillance portal is already being embraced by our allies in Australia and Great Britain, obviously USFK, and hopefully another number of countries will be joining. We are in discussions with others to demonstrate it, so the ATD actually is just over to the half and we’ve already managed to succeed in that respect. The biosurveillance portal has become an entity that will endure beyond the ATD.

OK, that’s something new to me, because for the beginning I thought that the biosurveillance portal is currently only tested in Korea but that’s not the case, you’re already working with countries such as Australia that are already part of the BSP?

Yes, so that information is relatively new. Over the last six months, a great number of things have changed. We haven’t really been vocal in announcing that in the press yet, but for one thing, the BSP is now adapted to the Ebola portal and is being used by US AFRICOM in West-Africa to manage the global response to the outbreak of Ebola. It is also being used in a number of exercises, some of them in CENTCOM. We already have the participation of some of our allies. Over time we expect that you’ll be seeing more and more people joining the program to place functionality into the portal and so, we haven’t really gone very public with that but maybe that’s something that you can do.

That sounds already like a huge success after a short period of time responding to a certain existing need.

I actually think you just said it very well. It was a need that really existed and I guess we were at the right place at the right time. But I want to point out that the BSP doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s being worked with other efforts inside and across the US and other agencies. So within the US, the JPEO is partnering with DTRA, with the software portals they have. We’re leveraging on-going applications or apps that are being developed by Australia or other countries. Many people have smaller functional components. What the BSP is doing is providing an umbrella to bring those capabilities together.

So, what would you say, which are the main end-users of this portal at the moment? Is it mainly government agencies or first responders, hospitals or public health agencies?

That is an excellent question and it has an evolving answer. Right now it is being mainly used by government agencies, in the host countries. As the portal takes off on the domestic soil, you’ll see different users. I should point out that the public health apparatus – CDC and HHS – are working with us, so this is not a DoD-only effort. The answer to who’s using it changes and I’m going to actually have to defer since I actually don’t know who all the thousands of users really are.

Preparing_to_enter_Ebola_treatment_unit_(5)From BSP, let’s go to the next leg, the biological capability identification set (BICS). What is the strategy behind this? What do you want to achieve and how?

I’ll answer the last question first. What we want to achieve is the ability to be able to cut the time for a regional commander to make a decision on how to protect the forces under his control. So, imagine a regional commander in the middle of nowhere in which the nearest laboratory is in a plane ride away. He has a series of sensors that go off in a pattern and he is not quite sure what it means. The battlefield commander would potentially have to wait days or weeks to be able to get an answer, and he wouldn’t really know what to do. BICS aims to give that commander the data to make a response within 4 hours.

How do you do that? How do you give a regional commander the ability to make decisions in four hours? The short answer is that you move a lab within a short distance of his site. But you want to do that in such a way that you create a sustainable and affordable solution. And so, BICS is aiming to reduce the time to make decisions by placing analytical laboratory assets that are affordable and sustainable. And sustainable is not just keeping the supply of electricity, but having the right people there and having them trained to be able to use it. What we created is a replicable sets of equipment and procedures that allow the USFK to maintain laboratories that would be within 20-30 kilometers of any incident thus allowing the capability to rush a sample there and confirm so that the commander can take tactical decisions to protect the assets under his responsibility.

And how do you do that?

BICS has been for the most part completed its work. So two years ago when we started, the commanders in Korea didn’t have the capability to do what I just told you.  Right now, we have three operational laboratories and support coming online that allow samples to be accurately determined, and we can get an answer to the commander in 4 to 6 hours.

The ATD is not over for quite some time. But that particular effort was fast-tracked given concerns in the South Korean region with instability with the North Korean regime. So, how did we do that? We didn’t want to come over with a whole bunch of equipment and push it into the hands of a laboratory chief and say: ‘Here, these are awesome, we’re going to show you how it works whether you like it or not and leave, and you’ll have to deal with it’. Instead, what we did is we brought different equipment over, and we gave them choices. We asked them to use them in training scenarios for time. Then we asked what was the best for them, what didn’t work, what they liked, what they didn’t like. Some of the equipment was pulled out of the theatre and some of it stayed behind. Three months later, we came and did it again. This time we brought genetic detection devices and three months later we brought hand-held devices and so over a period of 18 months, we introduced all sorts and kinds of equipment and they chose what they wanted. What’s interesting is that not every site chose the same sets of equipment but at the end of the day, they have a set of equipment, some of them have common pieces of equipment, and some of them have little differences. But now they have laboratories that can fit inside small laboratory footprint that are easier and have a lower training burden and lower logistical cost. They are tailored for the skill set of the military scientists that are available at each location.

While I keep talking about equipment, I want to make one big point here. I keep talking about what we call material solutions. That means a machine. But a lot of what we’re doing are non-material solutions. Meaning military terms TTP’s, SOP’s, whatever word you feel most comfortable with. Sometimes it’s not that we have to create a magical machine pulled straight out of a science fiction movie that’s going to solve all their problems. Sometimes it’s really just an issue of how you use it and under what circumstances that applies and so by working with their method and their decision tree, we can make maximal use of the material solutions that seem relevant.

640px-Anthrax_cultureI have one short question here: In the end, an important factor here has been the question of standardization of the equipment.

That’s an excellent point, and in fact obviously standardization has the benefit of economy of scale. Some of the laboratories have indeed chosen different pieces of equipment, however the amount of deviation is not as extreme as it may seem and all of the equipment was derived from equipment that was already being considered by programs of record within the US and our allies. What you see is that people tend to rally around common platforms so that we can maximize the amount of leveraging of the resources within the different countries. The bulk of the costs of a detection system are not in the acquisition but in the sustainability, the total life-cycle costs of that system itself.

We’ve been doing a lot of work on global market surveys and I’m sure you’ve seen global market surveys that have been put out by us, that were done by the JUPITR program. If you haven’t I can direct you to a website www.cbrnlibrary.com. We looked at 350 systems that were out all over the world. We saw what was out there, and one of our big concerns was that a lot of countries are buying platforms that they can’t acquire a large array of assays for. The burden of developing the assays lies on that one subset of people that buy that device and who are not really paying attention to the shelf-life and the sustainability of the reagents stream that they generate. I recommend visiting www.wmddetectorselector.com as well. We converted that market survey into a searchable database, and if you want to have an idea about the applications that are on the biosurveillance portal, without getting into the BSP, you can go there.

I see with the BICS and BSP you are already in a very advanced stage. How far are you with the third leg, the assessment of the environmental detectors (AED)?

Well, if you asked me that question at the beginning of the summer I would have had a different answer, but now we’re in full swing with AED. So the idea with AED is that we’re looking to replace our older legacy systems: they’re expensive, they have a high training burden. So we believe our goal is to increase the performance of the systems, lower the training burden and lower the total life cycle costs of the systems. However, we’re not looking to select “one ring to rule them all”. We may end up selecting different systems for different needs, but this is the largest side-by-side assessment we’ve ever done.

Ten systems have been selected, while some of them have been drawn from the DHS efforts. First we bought four of every system. Two systems went over to Osan Air Base and they were turned on at the beginning of September at an airfield and they were run up until about last week. We didn’t attack them or anything, but we wanted to see whether they broke, how they did in the rain, in the sun.

Meanwhile, two more systems were flown to the two hundred foot long Ambient Breeze Tunnel and they were assessed by challenging them with 152 aerosol challenges of four different agents: anthrax, plague, bacillia and botoxin, and that assessment finished Friday. Those systems departed afterwards for the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and they are set to arrive tomorrow morning, undergoing a maritime excursion in an environment that simulates a naval vessel. This test will run through February 4, if we keep on schedule.

From there, we can begin to make decisions on how we proceed into the final exams, which we call the Operational Demonstration. The Operational Demonstration is overseen by the Army Testing and Evaluation Center. They work with the Operational Test Command, and they perform what they call a joint military utility assessment – a fancy phrase for our final exams. And those systems that pass the final exam then move forward and potentially serve the purpose of achieving a residual capability that will remain with USFK. Obviously everything that fails to demonstrate military utility is removed from theatre, because we only want to put the best of the best out there.

So to conclude, AED is still in motion right now, I’m actually set to get a snapshot of how that data looked after the holidays and then I should get the maritime excursion data sometime around Valentine’s Day.

Let us shortly discuss the last leg, the Early Warning Concept. Could you describe the Early Warning concept of JUPITR ATD?

As you can imagine we have Force Protection Centers that we array around our military bases. And they’re looking for acoustic, thermal sensors, and cameras that notice if a truck approaches, but for the most part they’re operating in isolation from our CB sensors. So what we want to do is to bring them together with our CB sensors, so that our CB sensors are just one more Force Protection Center in an Integrated Base Defense System. So if a camera sees someone coming up in the dark of night, and the thermal sensor notices a cloud of a different temperature being released, a lighter base system is activated to interrogate this strange item in the field and our environmental sensors get a positive response. So what you see is a cascade of events acting in harmony providing a complementary layered defensive strategy around the perimeter of the base with the idea of sensing something earlier in the event cycle. And our Early Warning Concept is bringing all of these things together and performing data fusion.

Basically while integrating these CB sensors you’re building up on the JPM Guardian Capabilities?

That’s right, we made a mistake in the past where we created systems that operated in isolation from everything else. We learned the important lesson that the systems that are most effective are systems that are integrated in the daily work flow of operations and individuals. And if they’re going to protect the perimeter with an integrated defense system then that’s the system everybody is going to pay attention to. We want to create a holistic system that works in concert.

The JUPITR is an extremely sophisticated and state of the art approach that has never been done before. So there must have been a lot of challenges you faced during the last two years. What are the first lessons learned from these challenges while integrating all these technologies?

Obviously any effort that involves a lot of elements spread over large geographic regions, particularly one that requires the integration of a host country, the biggest efforts must be put in relationship building. You probably expect me to start out about the technological barriers, but the relationship building from the services of the host country lays the ground to tackle the technical challenges that happen.

Obviously there are some technical challenges. I think I underestimated the challenges everybody faces in software integration issues. Technical issues are somewhat easy to solve, but data sharing issues tend to be murky. The fundamental issue around biosurveillance is the ability to share information for rapid awareness. People talk about the “internet of everything” and that we are sharing so much information. That’s not necessarily the case with force protection capability. Our biggest challenge involves overcoming data-sharing issues and overcoming software integration issues to facilitate that.

About Dr. Peter Emanuel

Dr. Emanuel is currently the BioScience Division Chief at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center (ECBC), overseeing 100 life scientists and more than 60,000 square feet of laboratories at the premier non-medical research institute for Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defense science and technology.  Dr. Emanuel is also the lead for the Joint U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition (JUPITR) advanced technology demonstration (ATD). The JUPITR ATD is a multi-year effort by the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD) to explore how the U.S. Department of Defense will conduct global biosurveillance missions. Dr. Emanuel earned a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the Pennsylvania State University. He also holds a Bachelors of Science in Microbiology from the University of Maryland at College Park.