Developed by the Department of Defense (DoD) after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBEP) works to address global health security issues by collaborating with other states to reduce threats caused by biological warfare and infectious diseases (1). The CBEP was first developed as a nuclear nonproliferation program, previously named the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (2). However, the program has developed over time with a stronger focus on biological, chemical, and radiological threats, in response to a growing number of incidences, such as the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic and the 2014 Ebola crisis (2). Today, the CBEP engages with 30 countries around the world (2).
On Wednesday, July 13, 2016, the CBEP opened a new facility in Yerevan, Armenia, which will help the country build its disease prevention network. According to U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, Richard Mills Jr, this new partnership with Armenia “benefit[s] not just Armenia…but the larger world…in today’s globalized and interconnected world, diseases have no boundaries…we must all work together to prevent the proliferation of bioweapons” (3). In addition to the new facility, the CBEP recently finished renovations of two separate laboratories in Armenia, and is set to open three more facilities next year (3). Not only is the CBEP’s presence in Armenia a realization of the CBEP’s vision, but the initiatives there represent a huge diplomatic success, presenting the United States as a force for peaceful collaboration towards wellness around the globe, not just in the U.S.
Some of the CBEP’s current responsibilities include monitoring facilities that handle hazardous materials, eliminating “unnecessary stockpiles” of dangerous materials and waste, improving disease detection capabilities, and updating public health measures (2). During a recent DoD interview, CBEP chief Dr. Lance Brooks reported that the program’s purpose is to help partner states “safeguard and secure any biological material they may have for public health purposes, [and] to give them the capability to detect, diagnose and report incidents focusing on weapons of mass destruction, related bio threats and bio material” (2). In order to keep the CBEP initiatives organized and connected, the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency runs offices around the world (2). According to Dr. Brooks, physically stationing CBEP representatives out in the areas they service is crucial to the success of the program, which was built out of a vision of human presence and cooperation, rather than remote oversight (2).
In 2005, the CBEP began collaborating with the World Health Organization to establish a stronger presence in infectious disease prevention, supplemented by a 2009 memorandum creating ties with the national departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, among a myriad of other international organizations (2). Describing the CBEP’s vision and goals, Dr. Brooks explains, “we want [the states we work with] to be able to detect diseases beyond everyday acute diseases like cholera, tuberculosis and others, but it has to be integrated into the everyday job and function they're doing, otherwise they can't sustain it” (2). For example, during the initial outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014, the CBEP was one of the first organizations to develop and distribute diagnostic kits and contribute to preliminary work on the ZMapp drug (4).
The CBEP boasts a wide range of detection and prevention technologies, most notably what is known as the Biosurveillance Ecosystem. The Biosurveillance Ecosystem is a virtual network that “uses commercial and government technologies to aggregate and analyze data streams,” using many different types of data from different sources, including social media (5). The system was developed after a series of organized visits with several biosurveillance organizations in 2011, where the CBEP learned about common practices surrounding biosurveillance in different countries and assessed their needs (5). Following the visits, the CBEP began development of the Biosurveillance Ecosystem, melding different existing data collection methods and filling several gaps they noticed during their field research (5). Although the Biosurveillance Ecosystem is primarily a data sharing network accessed over the internet, it is highly customizable, offering a wide range of security options such as the ability to restrict and privatize certain data sets or applications (5). Given the huge amount of data sourced by the program, some of which is subjective, some experts were concerned about the quality of information in the database (5). To mitigate those concerns, the program allows analysts to rank all of the incoming information based on their confidence level in its reliability (5). The informed, real-time, easily accessible data provided by the Biosurveillance Ecosystem gives the CBEP an edge that allows them to respond quickly and effectively to any emerging threats. In addition to the Biosurveillance Ecosystem, the CBEP also uses an e-mail service called the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases, which provides steady, real-time updates to subscribers. It is used mostly by doctors, scientists, and public health workers for any news regarding infectious diseases.
Over the years, the CBEP has significantly redirected its endeavors away from warfare and nuclear nonproliferation, and towards public health service and disease prevention, filling a much needed but previously neglected role. As seen in Armenia earlier this month, the program’s continued expansion into countries that lack adequate protection from biological threats has already made a huge impact on their defense infrastructures, regardless of whether the threats they face are caused by intentional or accidental exposure to dangerous pathogens (1).
(1) The U.S. Department of Defense. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The CBEP Research Strategic Plan: Addressing Biological Threat Reduction Through Research. Dtra.mil. U.S. Department of Defense, June 2015. Web. 21 July 2016. http://www.dtra.mil/Portals/61/Documents/Missions/CBEP%20Research%20Strategy_FINAL_July%202015.pdf
(2) Pellerin, Cheryl. "DTRA Program Helps Nations Tackle Biological Threats." Defense.gov. U.S. Department of Defense, 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 21 July 2016. <http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/689971/dtra-program-helps-nations-tackle-biological-threats>.
(3) Ghazanchyan, Siranush. "U.S. Embassy Works with Armenian Government to Protect Nation from Disease." Armradio.am. Public Radio of Armenia, 13 July 2016. Web. 21 July 2016. <http://www.armradio.am/en/2016/07/13/u-s-embassy-works-with-armenian-government-to-protect-nation-from-disease/>.
(4) Pellerin, Cheryl. "DoD Chemical-Biological Program Has a Global Mission." Defense.gov. U.S. Department of Defense, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 21 July 2016. <http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/649239/dod-chemical-biological-program-has-a-global-mission>.
(5) Pellerin, Cheryl. "DTRA Scientists Develop Cloud-Based Biosurveillance Ecosystem." Defense.gov. U.S. Department of Defense, 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 21 July 2016. <http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/681832/dtra-scientists-develop-cloud-based-biosurveillance-ecosystem>.
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