Shielding Warfighters From Novel Biological Agents
by David Vergun, DOD News
January 12, 2023
The Department of Defense is modernizing
its approach for developing medical countermeasures to protect
warfighters from novel biological agents.
This is made clear
in a new document, "Approach for Research, Development and
Acquisition of Medical Countermeasures and Test Products," which was
recently published by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary
of Defense for Chemical and Biological Defense. This office oversees
the Department of Defense's Chemical and Biological Defense Program.
The CBDP's mission is to anticipate future
threats and deliver capabilities that enable the Joint Force to
fight and win in CB-contested environments.
U.S. Army soldiers assigned to Thunder Squadron, 3d Cavalry
Regiment, respond to a chemical attack during Exercise Rifle
Forge at the Fort Hood Training Area, Fort Hood, Texas on
February 10, 2022. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt.
The CBDP has always prioritized medical
countermeasures, which consist of vaccines, medical tests and drugs.
"No matter how good our boots, suits, gloves and masks perform,
there's always going to be the risk that our warfighters don't
necessarily have their equipment on when they need it. So having
medical countermeasures as an added layer for protection makes
sense," Dr. Kevin Wingerd, CBDP's medical director, said.
What has changed is the nature of the threat.
convergence of different sciences and technologies is transforming
the biological threat landscape," Wingerd said. "In particular, it
has created a nearly limitless number of potential threats we must
This contrasts to the past, when DOD
developed medical countermeasures against a defined list of specific
threats, typically ones adversaries had already weaponized. But this
"one bug, one drug" approach isn't viable in the face of the
exponentially larger number of potential threats, including novel
Nor is the Department solely focused on deliberate
In his Biodefense Vision Memo published in
November 2021, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III directed the
Department to be postured against agents that are naturally
occurring as well as those that may have been released accidentally,
alongside traditional deliberate ones. The new medical
countermeasures approach provides a roadmap to address this more
challenging problem set.
According to the document,
nonspecific medical countermeasures will enable warfighters to
remain on the battlefield after being exposed to an agent. After
that agent has been identified, rapid development of medical
countermeasures that eliminate the specific threat will be given to
all warfighters, including those newly entering the battle.
Nonspecific medical countermeasures are broad-spectrum acting and
are designed to target a set of similar agents, diseases or
symptoms. Nonspecific medical countermeasures are particularly vital
for novel agents that have no medical countermeasures.
Administrating nonspecific medical countermeasures could alleviate
symptoms, slow down disease progression and reduce transmission of
the agent, allowing troops to remain in the battle with little
impairment. While the agent may be suppressed for a given period, a
medical countermeasure that targets and eliminates the novel agent
is still required.
As Wingerd puts it, "Using nonspecific
medical countermeasures allows the agent's effects to be mitigated
and the warfighter to remain operational and combat ready, while
simultaneously allowing for rapid development of specific medical
countermeasures that can be used to completely get rid of the agent
and protect incoming warfighters."
U.S. Army National Guard soldiers from the 140th Chemical
Company perform mass casualty decontamination operations
during a training exercise at the Muscatatuck Urban Training
Center in Butlerville, Indiana during Exercise Guardian
Response 21 on April 23, 2021. (U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class
Brent C. Powell)
To rapidly develop narrow-spectrum medical
countermeasures, the CBDP will leverage cutting edge technology
including artificial intelligence and machine learning and establish
partnerships with known pharmaceutical manufacturers. The CBDP
considers manufacturing capacity a strategic challenge, which the
new approach addresses as a goal.
"In a response
preparedness posture, we need to invest in unique medical
infrastructure designed to rapidly produce new vaccines and drugs,
and leverage existing medical infrastructure by adapting them to
target new agents quickly," Wingerd explained.
has certainly taught us is that if that industrial base isn't
present, it doesn't matter how good your ideas are, they're just not
going to go anywhere," he added, mentioning that partnerships with
the interagency, academia and U.S. allies and partners are also
Besides the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,
which is the regulating agency for medical countermeasures, Wingerd
mentioned the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority
and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as key
CBDP interagency partners. Pointing to the recently updated National
Biodefense Strategy, Wingerd said, "This effort is really a whole of
government approach, and the CBDP's new approach aligns with and
supports the NBS."
He added that he expects new advances in
medical countermeasures to bear fruit beginning as early as next
year, with more to follow.
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