Army's Defense Forensic Science Center works on pandemic's front line

By Defense.govAugust 24, 2020

Dr. Roman Aranda, Supervisory Chemist, and Dr. Bo Liu, Chemist, process samples on the Panther Fusion at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Ft. Gordon, Ga.
Dr. Roman Aranda, Supervisory Chemist, and Dr. Bo Liu, Chemist, process samples on the Panther Fusion at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Ft. Gordon, Ga. (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Castro, Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON -- As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, the Army made mission adjustments to focus on protecting the force, posturing for global operational readiness and supporting the national effort to fight the coronavirus.

"U.S. Army researchers were critical during the SARS epidemic, the Zika virus and the Ebola outbreak as they helped develop antivirals and vaccines," Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy said in an April 1 statement. "They've done it before, and they will do it again."

During this time frame, a team from the Army Criminal Investigation Command's Defense Forensic Science Center's Forensic Exploitation Directorate, or FXD, collectively identified the required skills, training and equipment needed to conduct COVID-19 testing.

"At the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we understood the severity and global impact the virus would have," Crystal Allen, chief of Forensic Exploitation Branch 2, said. "We knew very quickly that given the organic skill set of the FXD examiners that we could assist the medical community with testing. Our support ultimately provided the Department of Defense with additional resources across the globe to support the ever-increasing demand for COVID-19 testing."

Located on the Gillem Enclave in Forest Park, Georgia, the DFSC's mission is to provide full-service forensic and biometric support to Army and Defense Department entities worldwide. This includes the subordinate units of the Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, FXD, Biometrics Operations Directorate, and the Office of Quality Initiatives and Training. The FXD houses the capability to deploy a scalable and modular forensic exploitation team to provide the joint force commander or combatant command with deployable forensic capabilities.

Five months later, a team from FXD continues to support COVID-19 testing in support of military forces.

The initial seven-member planning team was formed in mid-March and was tasked with concept development. The team members used their vast scientific and operational expertise to learn proper medical testing procedures and requirements to establish a way ahead to support the DOD.

Despite not having used the Panther Fusion, BioFire, or Gene Expert platforms before, the FXD examiners used their knowledge and skill sets in complex scientific instrumentation and sample handling to adapt, Allen said. These platforms use polymerase chain reaction technology, much like the technology FXD examiners use to conduct forensic DNA testing.

"FXD's support to COVID processing improved the U.S. military's readiness and provided enhanced value to the U.S. government," Allen said. "The FXD's support helped to identify service members testing positive within basic training formations, deploying units, mobilized National Guard units, Navy ships and Marine expeditionary forces so commanders could isolate those infected personnel in order to preserve the readiness of the remainder of the joint forces."

Since March, dozens of FXD forensic DNA examiners, latent print examiners and explosive and drug chemists have deployed to work in military medical treatment facilities at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, in support of Army Medical Command.

They have also deployed to Camp Ripley, Minnesota, in support of a mobile medical lab set up to handle COVID-19 specimen testing in remote locations.

The FXD team transformed their current forensic instrumentation and software into a viral testing capability and also modified five mobile forensic laboratories to meet the needs of medical testing facilities for rapid deployment into austere locations, Allen said.

The mobile forensic labs have aided in expedited testing and allowed military personnel to be tested without having to mail tests to another medical location.

The transformation from a forensic science capability into a medical testing capability required exhaustive research, planning, contract modifications and countless hours of coordination with the DFSC staff, CID staff, Army Medical Command, numerous scientific vendors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, Allen stated.

The FXD has significantly affected the fight during the COVID-19 pandemic with noticeable results by providing more than 8,100 hours of support and processed more than 47,530 DOD COVID-19 samples as of Aug. 11. In addition to the significant number of samples the FXD team was able to process, they were also able to provide their Army Medical Command partners with novel testing concepts and efficient processing mechanisms based on their experience working in high-operations-tempo forensic laboratories.

The team has processed samples submitted from basic training formations at Fort Benning, Georgia; deploying units from Fort Campbell, Kentucky; mobilized National Guard units preparing for rotations at the combat training centers; deployed military units along the Demilitarized Zone in Korea; and Marine expeditionary forces in Okinawa, Japan, to name a few.

"Our FXD teams continue a high level of support to [Army Medical Command] with COVID-19 testing," Army Col. Jeremy Willingham, DFSC executive director, said after processing 8,000 swabs in one week alone. "In one single day, the FXD team accessioned, packaged and shipped 2,820 specimens from the USS America, USS Ronald Reagan, USS New Orleans, U.S. Naval Hospital in Okinawa and Camp Humphreys."

The primary mission for FXD is global forensic exploitation support. However, the forward leaning innovative thinking led to FXD truly supporting a full range of military operations, to include the global fight against this novel threat, Allen said.

(Courtesy of U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command.)

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