Dugway's remoteness, expertise amaze Japanese bio-defense testers
March 19, 2013
By Al Vogel
DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah - At 37 million people, the Tokyo/Yokohama area of Japan is the world's most populated area, with an estimated 11,300 people per square mile. At its peak, Dugway Proving Ground averages fewer than two people for each of its 1,252 square miles. Little wonder that a group of Japanese scientists were amazed and delighted by Dugway's wide open spaces for testing a prototype biological agent detector for their nation.
Scientists from the Technical Research & Development Institute, under the Japanese Ministry of Defense based in Tokyo, tested the detector from June to November. Named Divine Wind, the test had Japanese working alongside scientists from the Life Sciences Division of Dugway's West Desert Test Center.
Divine Wind's outdoor testing was conducted -- per international treaty requirements -- with benign microbes that simulated Biosafety Level 3 biological agents. BSL-3 agents are those for which there is a vaccine or cure. Dugway does not possess or work with BSL-4 agents, extremely virulent bio-agents for which there is no vaccine or cure.
Indoors, BSL-3 agents were used in BSL-3 laboratories with multiple, redundant safety systems. Using live agent lends authenticity. After all, it's the detector's reason for being: spot live agent and give warning.
Easier to obtain and weaponize than BSL-4 agents, BSL-3 agents are more likely to be used by terrorists or rogue nations. BSL-4 agents (Ebola, smallpox, hemorrhagic fevers, etc.) are much more difficult to obtain, and require rare expertise with extremely complex facilities.
Using simulated BSL-3 agent, Divine Wind testers challenged the detector outdoors in varying weather conditions and distances from the simulant's release.
"In Japan, we don't have the testing chamber and the [outdoor] test field to test this detector," said Makoto Uchida, through a translator. "It is difficult to use live agent for testing in Japan."
Uchida, who has a PhD in animal and food hygiene, said they are now analyzing data to determine the test results.
Six Japanese government members tested the prototype bio-detector through the summer. Most of the time, two to four Japanese scientists were on each trial, working with Dugway bio-defense experts. Nearly 40 different BSL-2 and 3 agents were used to challenge the detector.
Part of Divine Wind involved using primers for Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) -- a method to duplicate DNA strands for more accurate identification.
Japanese scientists have developed PCR primers that speed duplication and give more precise identification. Being able to quickly and accurately identify a strain of anthrax, pneumonic plague, etc. can avert or contain an epidemic and save lives.
Tomotaka Mido, a microbiologist, said, "We were very surprised that Dugway has a big facility, and a big outdoor test field."
Divine Wind personnel encountered a wide range of weather conditions from June through November on the high desert test grids nearly 5,000 feet (1,525 meters) above sea level.
"We were lucky, though," Aaron Thomas, Divine Wind's test officer and a microbiologist, said. "We got cold, winds and snow. A few times we didn't get the field testing we wanted, but most of the time we did."
Testing was also conducted at the Joint Ambient Breeze Tunnel (JABT), a structure 530 feet long, 42 feet wide and 58 feet high. Fans drew bio simulants along its length, to challenge the detector. Because it's enclosed, the JABT shrugs off inclement weather and allows continued testing.
Hiroyuki Nakayama, the team leader for the Japanese contractors, was impressed by the resources, infrastructure and expertise at Dugway.
"Especially, we can use bio (agents) that we can't use in Japan," he said through an interpreter.
Thomas will soon go to Japan to discuss the data gathered, and review the English version of the Divine Wind test report with his Japanese counterparts. The approved version will be translated into Japanese and presented to the Japanese Ministry of Defense in March.
Some of the Japanese scientists may also return to Dugway this spring, to discuss more testing and exchange knowledge.
The Japanese scientists are very interested in the Whole System Live Agent Test (WSLAT) chamber, believed to be the world's largest chamber for testing biological detectors with live BSL-3 agent. Recently completed, it will be certified by the Centers for Disease Control this fall; the first test is expected early 2014.
Though the Japanese contractors worked eagerly in the lab and field, they did some sightseeing on days off: Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion and Arches National Parks, and Las Vegas and Wendover.
Dugway scientists had the Japanese over to their homes for barbecue and some recreational shooting with shotguns, handguns, .22 and high-powered rifles. It was their first trigger-time, and they enjoyed it.
Friendships were established, no doubt, but more importantly the Japanese learned the capabilities and limits of their prototype bio-detector, what Dugway offers, and how testing is done.
"Dugway's test infrastructure was one of the reasons they came here," Thomas said. "I think it's been a good experience for them to see how we test at Dugway Proving Ground. They'll take some of that knowledge back with them."
And undoubtedly, they returned with tales of the wide open spaces of the American West -- an experience almost inconceivable to others in the most populated place on Earth.