The world moved into full alert as information on COVID-19 flooded the news, social media and every form of communication. Where do I get the right mask to wear? Do I need to sanitize my groceries when I bring them home? Is it safe to order food from local restaurants?
While the world reeled from the news, the Army moved into high gear to protect its greatest strength—Soldiers. To support the effort, Maj. Gen. John George, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) commander, reached out to his team of nearly 10,000 scientists and engineers who develop solutions to keep Soldiers safe on the battlefield—asking them to pivot to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
DEVCOM’s contributions to the COVID-19 fight reflected both the expertise and the dedication of its workforce. The contributions ranged from researching antibodies to producing face coverings for Soldiers, and from training dogs to detect the virus to screening Soldiers before training rotations. Several of DEVCOM’s eight centers and laboratories responded immediately by sending items they already had on hand, including personal protection equipment, to front-line organizations in need, while other teams tapped into their extensive network of government, industry, academic and international partners to develop innovative solutions to help the Army deal with the pandemic.
The DEVCOM Chemical Biological Center (CBC) team knew that understanding the impact on lung tissue was important to understanding the virus. The center, which specializes in chemical and biological threats, used its Biological Safety Level 3 laboratories to study how the coronavirus affects living tissue by introducing the virus to lung tissue contained in a clear plastic container the size of a computer thumb drive. For those unfamiliar with biological safety levels, they range from one to four and are based on the agent or organisms that are studied. Biological Safety Level 4 requires the highest level of containment.
The goal of the lung-on-a-chip is to identify which specific proteins in lung cells act as receptors for the virus and its routes of entry. The chip has a top layer of lung tissue that recreates air moving along it and a bottom layer that mimics blood flow delivering micronutrients inside the tissue. The cassette’s flexible plastic walls mimic the breathing process in lung cells to make the microenvironment as realistic as possible.
The lung-on-a-chip enabled the team to determine the exact infectious dose and time the cascade of effects inside the lung tissue when that threshold was met. This information is the first step toward creating therapeutic and protective measures, and ultimately helping to develop preventative medications. DEVCOM CBC received fiscal year 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency for $4 million over 15 months for research on this project.
“Although nobody specifically knew that COVID-19 would occur, we at DEVCOM CBC were researching and preparing for the possibility of some kind of biological threat or pandemic event,” said Dr. Eric L. Moore, director of DEVCOM CBC. “Our researchers are the science and technology experts on biological threat protection, detection and decontamination. We also possess world-class additive manufacturing expertise. This combination made us well poised to support the nation in the fight against COVID-19, from material evaluation to personal protective equipment and even supply chain support. We were able to jump in and support our various partners with this emergency while continuing to accomplish our mission of developing technologies to protect the warfighter against chemical and biological threats on the battlefield.”
TEAMING WITH MAN’S BEST FRIEND
Dogs have been trained to detect ovarian cancer and diabetes in the past, which inspired the DEVCOM CBC to consider the possibility that dogs could detect coronavirus as well. DEVCOM CBC teamed with the University of Pennsylvania through a cooperative research and development agreement, to determine if dogs could detect proteins the human immune system generates to fight the coronavirus.
DEVCOM CBC researchers developed the Training Aid Delivery Device, known as TADD, which are containers that are safely sealed with a membrane that prevents hazardous material from escaping, but allows the scent of those materials to pass through. The TADDs are attached to arms on a wheel; as a dog moves around the wheel, it learns to detect substances in the TADDs. In this case, the items in the TADDs are not live COVID-19 virus, but rather samples of urine, saliva, sweat and other biological samples that contain the biomarker proteins associated with COVID-19 disease in humans.
The proof-of-concept study showed that dogs can be trained to detect the virus with 96 percent accuracy. Training the dogs to detect substances takes from six to nine weeks, though some dogs do not complete training because of its intensity.
The next step in the project, which is not yet funded, is to train the dogs to work in public spaces such as airports and sports stadiums where their ability to detect asymptomatic carriers could help prevent further transmission.
MEASURING COVID-19 ANTIBODIES
In August 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization to use convalescent plasma to treat people infected with the coronavirus. According to the Food and Drug Administration website, such authority allows the FDA to help strengthen the nation’s public health protections against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats by facilitating the availability and use of medical-countermeasures initiatives needed during public health emergencies. At the time and in response to the authorization, more than 70,000 American patients who had recovered from the coronavirus donated plasma to help people who were sick with the coronavirus.
Researchers at the DEVCOM Army Research Laboratory (ARL) teamed with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Houston Methodist Medical, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas at Austin to test ways to measure COVID-19 antibody levels for convalescent plasma therapy. The researchers found that the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test has an 80 percent or more probability of determining comparable antibody levels at or above the FDA-recommended levels necessary for COVID-19 convalescent plasma. The team also concluded that convalescent plasma donors maintain high levels of immunity for many weeks; frequent plasma donations do not cause a significant decrease in antibody or virus neutralization levels. Twenty-seven asymptomatic individuals who were part of the surveillance cohort with high enough antibodies indicated that some asymptomatic individuals may have plasma suitable for therapeutic use, and may have a degree of relative immunity against the coronavirus. Researchers also determined that the optimal window for donating convalescent plasma for COVID-19 immunotherapy is within the first 60 days after the donor has symptoms.
“I’m so proud of our DEVCOM team and all our partners. For ARL, as the Army’s corporate research lab, we build forward-looking, strong partnerships across the foundational research ecosystem and across scientific disciplines,” said Dr. Patrick J. Baker, ARL director. “This creates a scientific agility and responsiveness that both prepares the Army for the future and allows us to pivot when needed to tackle new unknowns. Our ARL response to COVID-19 with our partners is an excellent example of pivoting against a previously unknown threat. You know, at our core in DEVCOM, whether it’s one of the seven centers or us in ARL, in the end, our people are driven to use their expertise and to partner to help those on the front lines, whether they are our Soldiers, or in this case, COVID-19 patients and healthcare workers.”
TRACKING AND REDUCING EXPOSURE
DEVCOM CBC and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) found a way to screen nearly 4,000 Soldiers for COVID-19 before training rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. The center shipped two JPEO-CBRND mobile laboratories to Camp Ripley Training Center, Minnesota, where the Soldiers were located. The Soldiers were part of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Minnesota National Guard. In addition to shipping the mobile laboratories from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to Camp Ripley, they had to be outfitted with analytical equipment to screen the Soldiers. Members of the CBC Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team transported the mobile laboratories to Minnesota. On the first day of screening, 117 Soldiers were tested. After a brief pause, nearly a thousand Soldiers were tested each day.
DEVCOM ARL tapped into its vast network of academic partners to work with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to create a biocontainment unit to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus for medical personnel caring for COVID-19 patients. The team designed an individual biocontainment unit that uses negative pressure to suction the air around a patient and filter out viral particles. Because the air is actively filtered out, the individual biocontainment unit helps to reduce the spread of the virus, particularly when a patient is being intubated.
While the country struggled with what type of face coverings were needed, whether they would provide enough protection and how to properly wear them, people around the country became creative, donning everything from bandanas to scarves to homemade coverings. Ordering and receiving masks online during the onset of the pandemic was difficult because demand far exceeded supply.
DEVCOM Soldier Center, which develops textiles and uniforms for Soldiers, responded by designing, and later building and testing, a prototype for a durable face covering for Soldiers in non-medical, public settings. This effort continued for several weeks and eventually produced more than 12,000 face coverings for Soldiers. The face coverings, which were produced at the Soldier Center, were sent to Soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia, allowing them to continue training. The coverings were also distributed to the Natick Soldier Systems Center workforce, enabling them to return safely back to the workplace. DEVCOM Soldier Center also developed two videos, which were posted to YouTube, showing how to properly wear the face covering. The team also created a technical data package, which is located on Soldier Center website with patterns and information on how to produce large quantities of the face covering.
“Getting our Soldiers the best equipment is a team sport, and we used all our resources here. A talented team of our employees, Soldiers from the parachute rigger section and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] and human research volunteers from our Headquarters Research and Development Detachment all worked together to rapidly make the initial prototypes and then make minor design improvements based on feedback from the Soldiers,” said Doug Tamilio, director of the Soldier Center.
DEVCOM’s contribution to mask production didn’t end there. A new partnership among the Army Research Office at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, North Carolina State University and the 82nd Airborne Division Innovations Council at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, provided more than 100,000 face masks for Soldiers. Researchers at North Carolina State University’s Nonwovens Institute developed a unique filtration material that effectively filters out viruses and bacteria. The university donated 4,725 meters of the newly developed filtration material to the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. Paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division, which is part of the XVIII Airborne Corps, specialize in parachute missions, so the parachute riggers already had the skillset, equipment and facilities to sew the masks.
As the coronavirus spread throughout the country, several areas became hotspots, including New York City. In response to New York’s urgent need for protective equipment, DEVCOM Soldier Center delivered equipment, including N95 respirators, surgical-grade face masks, nitrile gloves, disposable lab coats, Tyvek suits and safety goggles and glasses to the Army’s 44th Medical Brigade, which deployed to the nation’s hardest-hit city to support COVID-19 response efforts.
While DEVCOM continues to focus on its primary mission to support Army modernization priorities and drive scientific discovery to provide Soldiers with the best technology available, the command is also committed to helping the Army and the world during the coronavirus pandemic. DEVCOM’s highly skilled workforce, along with its extensive network of partners, developed innovative solutions that will protect not only Soldiers, but people all around the world.
ARGIE SARANTINOS is a public affairs specialist for Huntington Ingalls Industries providing contract support to DEVCOM. She holds an M.S. in professional writing and a B.A. in mass communications from Towson University. She has 15 years of public affairs experience supporting DOD.
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