Addressing Virus Testing Mobility

The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Center Chemical Biological Center, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, has outfitted mobile labs to screen for COVID-19.

By Dr. Brian B. Feeney, CCDC CBC

From S&B and CST/CBRNE, Fall 2020

In the all-of-nation effort to fight the spread of the Coronavirus, the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, has teamed up with the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) to provide a fast way to screen for exposure to the virus to the Department of Defense.

The Center has outfitted two mobile laboratories with analytical equipment designed to determine if a person has been exposed to the virus using blood samples. Originally, they were designed to screen for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats more generally. Now they form a capability that JPEO-CBRND can make available to support Army and DoD COVID-19 testing requirements.

Each mobile laboratory was outfitted with two banks of eight pieces of analytical equipment known as BioFire FilmArrays, which are designed specifically to detect viral infection. The Center’s design and installation team directly connected the individual pieces of analytical equipment together into one system, known as a daisy chain, and wired each bank of eight to a single computer. This configuration not only saves space inside the cramped truck trailers, but also speeds the analysis.

“The mobile lab can produce a patient’s results in 50 minutes,” said Peter Emanuel. Ph.D., the Center’s senior research scientist for bioengineering and leader of the Center’s team. “At that rate laboratory operators can screen a total of 225 people per day for exposure to the virus. From there, medical teams can tell who to treat and who to send home.”

The Center was the natural choice for this job. Over the years, the Center has outfitted mobile laboratories to perform special purposes for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Food and Drug Administration and National Guard units.

“Our research scientists and engineers worked together to turn a research and development concept into a ready-to-field solution for the JPEO-CBRND,” said Chemical Biological Center Director Eric Moore, Ph.D. “This is the kind of experience that makes us the go-to people in a crisis, and we are very proud to work with our partners on the nation’s coronavirus response.”

The Center’s role does not end there. The Center’s Advanced CBRNE Training Branch has been training military units on how to detect and sample for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats for years. For this project they developed a training manual and the capability to conduct virtual training sessions for the operators of the mobile laboratories.

The ability of different elements of the Center to come together quickly to find innovative solutions was critical to the project. For example, when the project team realized that they needed an entirely new piece of equipment for the laboratories’ daisy chain configuration, the Center’s CBRNE Product Development Facility used its manufacturing shop to design and produce a part for precisely that function.

Lt. Col. Alan Stephens, JPEO-CBRND’s joint product manager responsible for leading and delivering mobile laboratory capability to the DoD, was impressed. “We truly appreciate working with the Center because of their quick responsiveness, ingenuity, and ability to get the job done.”

The ability to come together as one team engaged in one fight was gratifying to all of the team members. “All of us are proud to have a role in addressing this national crisis. Everyone wants to help,” said Chika Nzelibe, a mechanical engineer and the Center’s Engineering Design and Analysis Branch chief. “We feel very lucky that we happen to have the skill set needed to get this job done for the JPEO-CBRND and the DoD in their service to the nation.”

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