News | June 8, 2021

The United States and the Philippines Partnership to Defend against Disease Outbreaks

By Andrea Chaney Defense Threat Reduction Agency

image of renovated labs

FORT BELVOIR, Va.—The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) renovated seven regional animal disease diagnostic laboratories across Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao in the Philippines. The Agency’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP), a component of the Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, works with partner nations across the world to peacefully facilitate detection and reporting of infectious diseases, promote laboratory safety and security best practices, and establish international partnerships to reduce threats from dangerous diseases. Collaboration between the Philippines and DTRA began in 2016 and continues to be an important partnership between the two entities in Southeast Asia.

The renovated labs are the central resource for diagnostics of pathogens affecting agriculture, including those with potential affect to humans. In addition to these construction projects, DTRA trained more than 2,000 Department of Agriculture personnel in epidemiology, disease diagnostics, and laboratory safety, security, and quality management. The training provided the Department of Agriculture vital capabilities needed to respond to an extensive African swine fever outbreak that gripped the region, potentially destabilizing both economic markets and food security. In the near future, DTRA will provide a similar upgrade to Philippine Department of Health which will improve coordination between Departments on zoonotic pathogens that can threaten both animals and humans. Through activities like this, DTRA helps increase situational awareness to identify regional biological proliferation risks.

The true strength of this collaboration between the Philippines and the United States was demonstrated by a request for assistance during a crisis. In the spring of 2018, the president of Mindanao State University sent a letter to the DTRA Director articulating concerns that local ISIS-Philippines groups posed a risk to the University’s biological pathogen holdings following the 2017 siege of Marawi. Throughout that siege, the university was occupied by Islamic State of Lanao forces. It was impossible for the university to confirm which, if any, research pathogens had been taken, manipulated, or destroyed from their facilities.

At the request of the Mindanao State University and the Philippine government, DTRA immediately sent an assessment team to Marawi to assess risks posed by the situation. Once DTRA determined that no dangerous pathogens were held at the University facility, but that the University was aspiring to study them in the future for antidote and treatment research, the team provided Mindanao State University representatives with training opportunities, including a course called “Joint Investigation Bioterrorism and Bioinformatics Training.” This training enhanced laboratory safety and security at the Mindanao State University biological sciences department. Today, DTRA is working with the Philippines to find opportunities which will enhance Mindanao State University’s ability to develop laboratory risk management educational curricula, providing an extra layer of safety and security.

Through CTR and other capacity-building efforts, DTRA remains dedicated to develop long-term engagement opportunities which assist partner nations ensure the safety and security of their citizens and economies, as well as the U.S. Homeland and American allies in the region. For more information on these capacity-building partnership programs, visit www.dtra.mil.