Story by Andrea Chaney
FORT BELVOIR, Va.--While the world copes with the destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program has utilized existing partnerships and ongoing engagements to enable partner nations to leverage CTR-provided equipment and training to combat this pandemic wreaking havoc in their countries, including assistance with identifying the first SARS-CoV 2 case outside of China, in Thailand.
DTRA’s CTR program works with international and interagency partners to mitigate weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related threats to U.S. forces, the U.S. Homeland, U.S. allies, and U.S. interests. CTR works closely with their partners to eliminate WMD stockpiles, provide safe and secure storage for materials of concern, and detect and prevent WMD proliferation.
Global health security is a fundamental element of national security and the reduction and mitigation of biological threats are a key component of overall activities that help keep our country safe. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the value in ensuring that our foreign partners are adequately trained and equipped to secure biological threats at their source. Threat reduction activities help ensure that our allies and partners do this work in a safe and secure facility that reduces the risks of accidental release of dangerous pathogens or their possession and use by nefarious actors.
Although the current crisis is little more than a year old, the mitigation efforts underway in dozens of foreign countries are a testament to the robust cooperative partnerships that have been established, maintained, and strengthened over years. Such relationships enabled a robust, collaborative, and comprehensive approach to countering the threat posed by COVID-19. The current pandemic, and earlier Ebola, SARS, and MERS outbreaks, demonstrate the need for effective biosurveillance capabilities as well as the value of improving partner nation capabilities to mitigate biological threats at the source before they become global threats.
CTR programs are not intended to establish a permanent presence in foreign countries. Indeed, a deliberate transition of an enhanced threat-reduction capability to a host nation ensures sustainment of the United States’ and allies’ investment and capacity built within the partner country. The relationships that CTR builds help ensure that the benefits of DTRA partnerships will last well beyond the discrete bounds of a given engagement and that the enhanced partner capacity can be leveraged during future crises, lowering the risk to partners and to our own Homeland, our allies, and our interests. The United States’ demonstrated value as a partner of choice for building partner capacity overseas will pay dividends and mitigate the acute impact of future potential crises.
In particular, DTRA CTR’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) has provided necessary training and equipment to more than 130 institutions in over 30 countries to improve their ability to detect, diagnose, and report unusual biological incidents and outbreaks of pandemic potential. These capabilities have helped bolster CTR’s partner nations’ abilities to quickly detect and diagnose the current COVID-19 outbreak. Laboratorians, epidemiologists, and other specialists in partner countries continue to take advantage of the support provided by DTRA, including laboratory construction, implementing key facility and security safeguards at vulnerable locations, and training and equipping partner-nation ministries of health, defense, and others, such as through the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the early days of COVID. There are many examples that illustrate the impact of DTRA CTR support. Some key examples are highlighted below:
• Thailand: On January 13, 2020, Thai scientists at the Chulalongkorn University used CTR-provided diagnostic equipment and training to determine the first COVID-19 case outside of China, resulting in early detection and reporting that the disease was spreading globally. Former DTRA Director Vayl Oxford acknowledged this success during subsequent testimony before the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, noting that “as a result of the DTRA CTR Program and the assistance of our U.S. Government partner, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), local officials in Thailand detected the first case of a novel coronavirus outside of China on January 13, 2020, after its initial discovery in Wuhan, China.”
• Georgia: CTR-trained Georgian scientists at the CTR-constructed Richard Lugar Public Health Research Center in Tbilisi developed a COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing capability, which enabled Georgia to limit the impact of the disease to just five deaths as of this reporting. The Georgian Vice Prime Minister stated, that the training DTRA provided helped the country be more prepared for the coronavirus.
• Senegal: Senegal’s Ministry of Health activated the CTR-built and trained National Public Health Emergency Operations Center, which functions as a key focal point for information sharing and diagnostic testing coordination for the West Africa region and with the African Union Center for Disease Control, as well as for Senegal’s COVID-19 response.
• Guinea: Guinea’s Ministry of Health used the Mobile Diagnostic Laboratory (MDL) in Conakry to confirm the first case of COVID-19 in Guinea. The MDL, provided by BTRP during the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak, is designated by the Ministry of Health as the sole laboratory in Guinea to handle and test all suspected COVID-19 specimens.
• Laos: BTRP conducted a tabletop exercise to prepare officials from 11 ministries for safe and effective detection, response, and mitigation of widespread community transmission of COVID-19. Additionally, BTRP supported a workshop at the international airport in Vientiane to assist 15 Lao ministries in improving screening of potential COVID-19 cases.
BTRP, along with other CTR programs – Security and Elimination (SE) and Proliferation Prevention Program (PPP), continue to encourage partner nations to leverage capabilities previously provided by CTR as well as continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency enables the Department of Defense, the United States Government and International partners to counter and deter weapons of mass destruction and improvised threat networks.