Leveraging Network to Counter Viral Advance

The U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC) leads a continuous and agile transformation of Army modernization in order to provide future warfighters with the concepts, capabilities and organizational structures they need to dominate a future battlefield. This agility enables AFC to pivot its diverse network of scientific and technological expertise to rapidly contribute COVID-19 countermeasures to protect warfighters and civilians alike.

By Dr. Shawn M. Walsh, Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory

From Armor & Mobility, October 2020

COVID-19 is an emergent and disruptive disease caused by infection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. It is a contagious disease that threatens the health and well-being of billions of people around the world. Research efforts between the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, or CCDC, and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, or MRDC, give innovators across the U.S. Army Futures Command, or AFC, the opportunity to pivot their talent and technology to help combat this deadly disease.

Synthetic biology has the potential to keep Soldiers healthy against a host of bacterial and viral infections. It also has the potential to disrupt the way Soldiers shoot, move and communicate in the future. As one of the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy’s priority research areas, synthetic biology could lead to unprecedented technologies that deliver more energy-dense propellants and explosives, reactive coatings and textiles and a new generation of optical and sensor materials. A direct and timely impact from synthetic biology research is the possibility it holds for developing a suite of new therapeutics to combat antimicrobials, viruses and other diseases that portend harm to human health.

Team of Teams Approach

Prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, CCDC was already committed to exploring the transformational potential of synthetic biology. It is theoretically possible to develop materials that, like living organisms, can adapt and blend visually and thermally with their surroundings. This adaptive ability could lead to materials that better conceal Soldiers from potential detection when moving from one mission operating environment to another.

On the path to such transformational future Soldier capabilities, scientists and engineers from the CCDC Army Research Laboratory’s, or CCDC ARL’s, synthetic biology research area were able to rapidly pivot to make immediate contributions to COVID-19 countermeasure research. Together, CCDC and MRDC united a diverse and complementary national network of innovators to develop a new antibody discovery platform. They produced potent human antibodies that bind SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins, which the virus uses to gain entry into cells and inhibit infection in otherwise healthy cells. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the National Institutes of Health published their 3-D atomic scale map of the part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the journal Science, Feb. 19, 2020. The map details the spike protein structure, which the virus uses to attach to and infect human cells. Availability of the new spike protein map triggered nearby researchers at ARL South to initiate an effort to explore antibody mechanisms that neutralize the virus.

CCDC ARL, including its regional sites in Texas, California, Chicago and Boston, laced together an agile national synthetic biology innovation network to explore new materials and processes for future Soldier capabilities. As shown in Figure 1, this innovation network allowed the laboratory and its national ecosystem to rapidly collaborate with university and industry experts working to develop potential COVID-19 countermeasures.

InDi Molecular, Inc., University of Washington Institute of Systems Biology, Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas at Austin collaborated with the Army on this work. MRDC provided CCDC ARL with rapid connectivity to testing and evaluation expertise at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, or WRAIR, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, both subordinate commands of MRDC. As a result of this swift and agile teaming, pharmacokinetic and toxicology studies of the most promising virus-neutralizing candidates have been performed. Cocktails of antibodies are currently being assembled from neutralizing monoclonal antibodies to distinct epitopes on the virus.

Virus Detection: Anticipate and Counter

Army medical research has played an important role in national defense throughout history by continually responding to emerging threats. Adenovirus, influenza, meningococcal diseases, hepatitis A and B, and Japanese encephalitis vaccines all had roots in Army research and development programs. As a key component within the AFC structure, MRDC is on the forefront of a number of key efforts to prevent, detect and treat COVID-19 by applying existing field-leading research capabilities, a global research network, and established partnerships with industry and academia to support the whole-of-government response to COVID-19. “The work being done by our scientists is yielding promising results,” said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Talley, Commanding General of MRDC and Fort Detrick. “We’re all working towards a solution, and we want to get it done as quickly as possible.”

In support of this response to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, WRAIR developed a vaccine prototype as well as two backup candidates; all of which are in the process of production and expected to start Phase 1 first-in-human clinical trials in the fall. Other research is ongoing as well, utilizing artificial intelligence and high-throughput testing to identify new COVID-19 treatments as well as working closely with military medical treatment facilities to advance new diagnostics tests.

USAMRIID is the DOD’s lead laboratory for medical countermeasure research to protect Service members from biological threats and emerging infectious diseases. The Institute is contributing to the COVID-19 research effort by developing both small and large animal models of infection that are critical for testing vaccines and treatments for human use. USAMRIID is working to improve the speed, capacity and portability of COVID-19 testing to support operational readiness. The Institute’s extensive containment laboratories allow researchers to safely handle the SARS-CoV-2 virus while conducting multiple studies. Its specialized aerosol technology allows researchers to explore the course of disease by the inhalation route, as well as to evaluate the virus for its ability to remain infectious in an aerosol form.

“CCDC elements such as ARL and several of our research and development centers were able to pivot to supporting the COVID-19 response and deliver results very quickly, which shows you the depth and quality of our workforce,” said CCDC Commander Maj. Gen. John A. George. “It demonstrated the command’s agility, but also the power of the hundreds of partnerships we have across the scientific, engineering and analytical disciplines around the world. In this case it helped us respond to a global threat to human health. In the future that same expertise and global network will be brought to bear to support American warfighters who may have to engage on battlefields that change as quickly as someone can write a new algorithm. As we execute the Army Futures Command’s strategy we are positioned to be the team that will deliver the science and technology capabilities the Joint Force will need to continue to dominate even as the pace of technological change continues to accelerate.”

Synthetic biology is just one of many unique research areas that gives AFC the ability to ensure the readiness of the current force and deliver unprecedented capability to the future force. In addition to potentially treating COVID-19 with antibodies and convalescent plasma transfusion made possible from synthetic biology, AFC successfully leveraged talent and capabilities from other Army priority research areas and cross functional teams, or CFTs.

New diagnostic tools to rapidly scan, assess and track Soldier COVID-19 symptoms and protective face coverings that meet multiple and demanding Soldier use requirements are just two examples of how AFC quickly operationalizes science and technology into new Army capability.
Soldier Lethality CFT:

Enabling Rapid Screening

Fever and abnormal body temperatures, though not necessarily definitive by themselves, are often early symptoms in many potential COVID-19 cases. A new device being developed by the AFC’s Soldier Lethality CFT, based on groundwork laid by CCDC’s C5ISR Center, could play a key role. The device is known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS. The CCDC C5ISR Center led development of key enabling technologies for IVAS – such as novel sensors, novel displays and prisms – and capabilities which include rapid target acquisition, augmented reality, wireless connectivity with the family of weapon sights-individual, or FWS-I, and the tactical assault kit. IVAS was successfully modified and demonstrated as a possible COVID-19 diagnostic tool. The use of a Soldier-centered design approach in IVAS development made this rapid pivot to a diagnostic capability possible. The device was originally conceived as an enabling technology to make Soldiers more lethal and survivable in the increasingly complex battlespace described by the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations.

As part of the Soldier Lethality CFT, scientists and engineers from AFC’s CCDC Soldier Center, C5ISR, Data Analysis Center, and Army Research Laboratory, worked together with PEO Soldier and Microsoft to develop early and evolving versions of IVAS. The Soldier-centered design process promotes iterative refinement and validation of key IVAS capabilities and features based on feedback from multiple Soldier touch point events. The device integrates an unprecedented level of complementary functionality. This design flexibility allowed the Soldier Lethality CFT to rapidly modify the device to quickly scan and assess the temperature of Soldiers. Unlike conventional thermometers, it can measure Soldier body temperatures remotely, making it possible to scan and record as many as 300 Soldiers every 30 minutes. Such a capability has practical implications to augment other diagnostic tools for assessing and assuring Soldier health and mission readiness.

“In looking to the future of warfare, lethality and survivability go hand in hand,” said Brig. Gen. David M. Hodne, director of the Army Future Command’s Soldier Lethality CFT at Fort Benning, where he also serves as the Infantry Commandant. “While we’re maintaining momentum in pursuit of modernization, we have to keep in mind that readiness today is critical, and in that moment, with the health and wellbeing of our Soldiers paramount, being able to quickly adapt and employ IVAS as a thermometer, so to speak, was a stroke of genius on the part of the developers who immediately recognized the potential.
“As much as I personally appreciate the value of IVAS [as the Thermal Imaging for Fever Screening system] because it helps mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the Soldiers training here at Fort Benning, I’m thrilled that it validated the methodologies of STPs and rapid development we’re using to develop those next generation technologies we need to ensure lethality and survivability in a climate that is often hostile and always unpredictable.”

Delivering the Right Fit for Face Protection

One of the most effective lines of defense against COVID-19 has been the use of protective face coverings and mask technologies. In the earliest days of the pandemic, millions of people around the world improvised to quickly create face coverings to provide some level of protection against a SARS-CoV-2 infection. A complete and validated solution is in the best interest of our Army Soldiers, and this includes fielding the right type of face coverings and protective masks.

Drawing on its diverse expertise, CCDC worked to swiftly develop and deliver better materials and manufacturing processes to minimize Soldier exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The CCDC Chemical Biological Center teamed with Global Center for Medical Innovation, Georgia Tech Research Institute, National Aeronautical and Space Administration and Aviation and Missile Center to develop a replaceable N95 mask filter and mask design for medical personnel. ARL’s Army Research Office initiated a partnership between North Carolina State and the 82nd Airborne Division Innovations Council at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soldiers and university researchers worked together to cut, sew and test unique filtration material for face masks that can protect medical workers, Soldiers and their dependents against the effects of COVID-19. Program managers at CCDC’s Armaments Center, Soldier Center and Chemical Biological Center with the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Department of Defense Manufacturing Innovation Institute established individual test services agreements to characterize fabric and filtration materials used in civilian personal protective masks. AFFOA is a public-private partnership creating breakthrough, dual-use approaches to textile technologies and manufacturing, and plays a critical part in CCDC’s overall innovation network. Working with their membership and partners in the supply base, AFFOA donated 10,000 NIOSH-certified N95 protective masks to the U.S. Special Operations Forces Command in the earliest days of the pandemic. These masks were used across multiple Special Operations Forces elements to protect Service personnel and civilian DOD employees.

CCDC Soldier Center pivoted the technical expertise it uses to design future Soldier uniforms, parachutes and soft body armor to quickly design a range of face covering prototypes. Designers, material scientists, textile technologists, systems engineers and human factors experts teamed up to develop the right protective solutions for Soldiers. Testing and evaluation of the prototypes included Soldier assessments and compliance with DOD standards and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requirements for COVID-19. Soldier ratings helped identify the best design for immediate use and enabled CCDC Soldier Center to deliver recommendations to PEO Soldier – Project Manager Soldier Survivability for production efforts.

“I’ve seen firsthand how the installation partners at the Natick Soldier Systems Center step up to help solve DOD’s challenges and provide the best for our Soldiers,” said Brig. Gen. James Bienlien, deputy commanding general of the Combat Capabilities Development Command and the senior commander of the Natick Soldier Systems Center. “The quick turn-around in creating face-mask prototypes accomplished by the CCDC Soldier Center underscores the innovation that is at the very heart of the Army Futures Command.”

Future Focused, Peripherally Applied

Soldier face coverings, thermal-based diagnostic tools and potential COVID-19 therapeutic countermeasures are only a small fraction of the contributions AFC has made directly and indirectly to keep Soldiers safe, healthy and mission ready. AFC’s contributions to the COVID-19 fight benefit our larger society as well, in the same way AFC benefits from tapping into a vast national and international innovation ecosystem. However, AFC has a mission to lead the Army’s modernization enterprise and deliver the right capabilities on the right time horizons to the future force.

As shown in Figure 2, AFC’s inherent agility allows it to respond to an emergent threat like COVID-19, but still remain unwaveringly focused on operationalizing science to create transformational overmatch and capability for the future force. Material by Design, the Science of Additive Manufacturing and Synthetic Biology are all Army priority research areas from the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy. Similarly, IVAS is a critical component of the Army’s Soldier Lethality CFT. This allows AFC to remain future focused but peripherally apply new knowledge, tools and technologies for near term impact.

Forging Ahead

Responding to emergent threats is nothing new to the Army. The resilience and resourcefulness needed to rapidly muster innovative countermeasures is exemplified every day by Soldiers and the civilians who support them. More than ever, warfighters rely on rapid advances from a wide range of scientific and medical communities to keep them safe, protected and mission ready.