Two Texas A&M AgriLife groups will showcase their recent efforts to help keep the nation and U.S. agriculture safe from biological threats during a major Department of Homeland Security, DHS, summit May 19-20.
The Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases, IIAD, and the Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense, CBTS, will present at the DHS Centers of Excellence Summit. CBTS is a current DHS Center of Excellence and IIAD is an emeritus Center of Excellence.
IIAD’s focus as an emeritus Center of Excellence
DHS Centers of Excellence are university-based groups that focus on certain mission areas related to the safety of the U.S. The centers conduct research and develop educational materials to help meet DHS’ needs within those specific mission areas.
“For IIAD, that area is zoonotic diseases and transboundary animal diseases of importance to both animal health and public health,” said Heather Simmons, DVM, director of IIAD, Bryan-College Station. “We became a DHS S&T Center of Excellence in 2004 and were focused on the homeland security presidential directives that dealt with food and agriculture defense and biodefense. We still help provide either research technologies or workforce development initiatives for DHS.”
As an emeritus Center of Excellence, IIAD has expanded from its original domestic scope. Today, it is actively engaged in building international networks to proactively address foreign animal diseases. Their mission includes preventing diseases such as foot and mouth disease, FMD, or African swine fever, ASF, from reaching the U.S.
“Since our research and workforce development portfolios have been traditionally focused on foreign animal diseases that are not currently within the U.S., the institute worked to expand our international partnerships once becoming emeritus in order to have expanded relationships to prevent these diseases from coming into the U.S.,” Simmons said.
CBTS’ focus as a Center of Excellence
CBTS’ mission area relates to biothreats that could enter the U.S. and disrupt supply chains.
“Biothreats are anything that could impact our agriculture, our people and the resounding effect that can impact our economy,” Heather Manley Lillibridge, Ph.D., CBTS executive director, Bryan-College Station, said.
Manley Lillibridge noted COVID-19 and the Asian giant hornets — popularly called “murder hornets” — as examples of recent biothreats to U.S. supply chains.
CBTS’ broad mission includes performing research and creating educational and workforce development materials. These efforts help government personnel working along the border and points of entry recognize known and new biothreats they might encounter, explained Greg Pompelli, Ph.D., CBTS center director, Bryan-College Station.
“We don’t know what the next threat is going to be, but we aim to have the research and tools ready and available to help border workers move more quickly and effectively when it does happen,” he said.
Centers of Excellence Summit and students
The summit is an opportunity for current and emeritus Centers of Excellence to come together and showcase their work.
“All of the centers do a lot of good work year-round on topics of interest to DHS, but there is no simple way to describe all that is going on,” Pompelli said. “The summit has been designed to bring everyone who is interested or possibly interested up to date on what the centers are doing, what they can do and where they are looking to go.”
Centers of Excellence like CBTS and IIAD are trying to reach out to and support students.
“For our center as well as others, workforce development is a big part of what we do,” Pompelli said. “The hope is that through projects — whether they are projects that come out of Texas A&M or other universities — we are able to excite some students about working with DHS.”
IIAD research specialist Miguel Gonzalez and CBTS education director Jenny Ligon are co-chairs for the summit’s “Student Grand Challenge.” The three-hour virtual tabletop exercise will see 27 university students from across the country simulate collaborations across the Homeland Security Enterprise to address a scenario of COVID-19 vaccine supply chain disruption.
The event is a collaboration across numerous Centers of Excellence. It will give participating students the opportunity to network and work with DHS mentors.
CBTS showcase: Live demonstration
Normally, the DHS Centers of Excellence Summit is held in person. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event is entirely virtual this year. Sessions and even virtual convention “booths” will be held online.
In addition to their virtual booth, CBTS will be hosting a live-streamed demonstration at 3:15 p.m. on May 19. It will highlight results of a project that could make it easier to identify people infected with a pathogen before they even show symptoms.
“Our project is called ‘Presymptomatic Detection of Illness,’ and was done in partnership with a company called Pridgen and a company called Biomeme,” Manley Lillibridge said. “Biomeme has made a ruggedized device that you can take into the field. It’s basically a dummy-proof diagnostic device, a PCR test, but you don’t have to do it in a lab.”
PCR tests — like those made famous, or infamous, by the nasal swab COVID-19 tests — look for certain markers related to a pathogen infection. In CBTS’ project, the devices created by Biomeme using development of biomarkers by Predigen do not test for pathogens themselves, but instead look for markers of an immune response to the pathogen.
“People using the device don’t have to culture potentially dangerous pathogens,” Manley Lillibridge said. “They just take some blood and can determine if you have a subclinical infection even before you have a fever or are feeling sick.”
She added that the devices can identify whether someone is infected with bacterial or viral pathogens. More specific markers have been added to the platform that even allows differentiation between specific types of respiratory infections.
“Is it the flu or is it COVID-19, for example,” she said. “It’s still at the research stage, but we’re pretty excited about it because nothing like this pre-symptomatic detection technology exists.”
CBTS showcase: COVID-19 supply chain impact session
CBTS will also be participating in one of the headlining research showcase sessions related to COVID-19.
“This session involves several different centers that were looking at the economic impacts of COVID-19 on the U.S. economy or aspects of the U.S. economy,” Pompelli said.
CBTS focused on the potential impacts of COVID-19 on food and agricultural portions of the economy through four research projects initiated in March 2020.
“There were all sorts of different uncertainties at that time like the livestock issues and the inability to get meat processed due to the impact of the virus on the packing plant workforce, for example,” Pompelli said. “There were a lot of people who thought COVID-19 was going to be devastating to our food supply chains. Despite early disruptions, over the course of the pandemic, we learned a great deal about the resilience of the food and agricultural sectors and the people who work in those industries.”
The research projected how the recovery was going to play out, but also how it could have gone under different circumstances.
“DHS needs a sense of what needs to be prioritized, and COVID-19 is a great example where a biological threat was more devastating than a direct attack by a foreign state,” Pompelli said.
IIAD showcase: Recent projects and valuable international networks
IIAD will be showcasing several of its recent projects at its virtual summit booth in addition to its participation in the Student Grand Challenge. One of these projects is the CHAGAS project, which looked at the impact of Chagas disease in DHS working dogs. Chagas is a tropical parasitic disease that can infect both humans and other mammals like dogs. If untreated it can cause severe heart problems. The project also found that DHS working dogs, which often work in areas where Chagas vectors are common, may serve as a sentinel for emerging human health threats.
Other projects IIAD will highlight at its booth include Project S.W.A.R.M. and its ongoing Vaccine Tabletop Exercise project. For Project S.W.A.R.M. — short for Strategic Widespread Agricultural Response Management — IIAD developed a prototype food animal disease outbreak simulation game to evaluate preparedness and time-sensitive response activities in the face of a catastrophic event on U.S. agriculture. The Vaccine Tabletop Exercise project similarly aims to assess preparedness and vaccine planning on the animal health side for high consequence diseases like FMD or ASF.
IIAD also will emphasize the value of its unique international networking and capacity building. Simmons said the ongoing example of the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of an international perspective on emerging disease issues.
“Our focus and mission is on emerging diseases at the wildlife-livestock-human health interface,” Simmons said. “With everything that has happened with this pandemic, it is important for DHS and others in the Homeland Security Enterprise to understand the current research and capacity development that we are doing in the international stage.
“It is important for them to see the networks we have built beyond what the traditional DHS networks are since we have become emeritus. We’re proactive in building the international networks and we are responsive to the international needs as well as being responsive to our commodity needs.”
The summit is free to attend but requires online registration. It is intended for anyone who wants to learn more about the work being conducted by DHS and/or Centers of Excellence. For more information on summit events and registration, visit the summit website at https://cina.gmu.edu/coe-summit-2021/.