"Until mid-2002, the only equipment to detect biological agents that warships had were the sailors themselves," said Michael Boehm, an associate professor of plant pathology at Ohio State and a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
"The military was ill-prepared to deal with what might happen if a 37-cent letter filled with anthrax or smallpox was opened on a ship at sea."
Boehm was called to active duty shortly after September 11, 2001, to help the Navy develop an inclusive biowarfare agent detection program. In late 2001, he headed for the Naval Medical Research Center's Biological Defense Research Directorate (BDRD) in Silver Spring, Md. Boehm's active duty stint ended in February 2003, and he returned to Ohio State.
He and his colleagues at BDRD developed, implemented and trained Navy personnel in how to sample, test and respond to possible biowarfare attacks by agents such as anthrax and smallpox that, this past spring, the Navy adopted as a standard operating procedure for detecting the presence of BW agents. According to Boehm, the plan can be used anywhere there's a suspected BW incident.
Boehm shared his experience in designing the protocol on September 9 at the meeting of the American Chemical Society in New York City. Co-presenters, all with the Naval Medical Research Center's Biological Defense Research Directorate, included Al Mateczun, Darrell Galloway, Robert Bull, Joan Gebhardt, Timothy Stello and Richard Gotautas.
The researchers devised a three-tiered biowarfare agent detection system:
Level 1 - presumptive. Armed with portable hand-held assays, which look and function like home pregnancy test kits, trained personnel can determine within 15 minutes to an hour whether or not a suspected BW agent has infiltrated a ship. Developed in the early 1990s for use in Operation Desert Storm, such test kits give users quick results, but also have their limits, Boehm said.
"While these tests are a good, quick prescreen, the only definitive way to determine if the results of the hand-held test are truly accurate is to grow the organisms in a laboratory," he said.
Level 2 - confirmatory. Before the current testing system was in place, ship-bound Navy personnel had to wait 24 to 96 hours before getting a definitive answer on whether or not a suspected pathogen had infiltrated a ship, said Boehm. Suspicious samples were sent to land-based laboratories for testing. Under the new protocol, several warships have installed air filters connected to machines that run polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays - tests that provide a genetic fingerprint of a biowarfare agent. These air filters "breathe" nearly 70 times the amount of air a sailor breathes.
"With PCR, we could find a single gene copy amid an ocean of pathogen in less than an hour," Boehm said. This kind of quick detection helps medical personnel know how to treat people who were exposed to the pathogen, ideally before those people have a chance to infect others.
Level 3 - definitive. The suspected specimen is sent to BDRD or another national laboratory, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases for a full analysis.
"The problem with BW agents is that they come in a variety of forms, such as bacteria, toxins and viruses," Boehm said. "Several of the biggest threats - anthrax and plague - are bacteria and can be grown in a laboratory. But viruses like smallpox can only be grown in special conditions. Toxins can't be cultured."
While the three-tiered protocol was designed for seafaring ships, the same steps can be - and have been - taken to determine the presence of BW agents in buildings and other enclosed structures.
"BDRD used these three highly complementary approaches for detecting biowarfare agents to process more than 16,000 environmental samples collected from key points within Washington, D.C. during the anthrax outbreaks following September 11," Boehm said. Since then he and his colleagues also trained personnel from more than 30 Naval units to conduct confirmatory analyses.
The next step, Boehm said, is to develop a similar detection system for agriculture.
"The kind of system that we put in place for the Navy doesn't exist for training people to detect plant and animal pathogens," Boehm said.
[Embargoed for release until 8:45 A.M. ET Tuesday, September 9, 2003, to coincide with presentation and the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.]