Army using forensic science in coronavirus battle

Connecting Vets
August 29, 2020 - 7:19 am

Department of Defense

Courtesy of Army Criminal Investigative Command

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the United States, the Army made mission adjustments to focus on protecting the force, posturing for global operational readiness and supporting the national effort to fight the coronavirus. 

"U.S. Army researchers were critical during the SARS epidemic, the Zika virus and the Ebola outbreak as they helped develop antivirals and vaccines," Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy said in an April 1 statement. "They've done it before, and they will do it again." 

During this time frame, a team from the Army Criminal Investigation Command's Defense Forensic Science Center's Forensic Exploitation Directorate, or FXD,  identified was to conduct COVID-19 testing. 

"At the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we understood the severity and global impact the virus would have," Crystal Allen, chief of Forensic Exploitation Branch 2, said. 

Located on the Gillem Enclave in Forest Park, Georgia, the DFSC's mission is to provide full-service forensic and biometric support to Army and Defense Department entities worldwide. The FXD has the capability to deploy a forensic exploitation team to provide the joint force commander or combatant command with deployable forensic capabilities. 

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Five months later, a FXD team continues to support COVID-19 testing in support of military forces.   

Despite not having used the Panther Fusion, BioFire, or Gene Expert platforms before,  FXD used polymerase chain reaction technology, much like DNA sequencing, Allen said.

"The FXD's support helped to identify service members testing positive within basic training formations, deploying units, mobilized National Guard units, Navy ships and Marine expeditionary forces so commanders could isolate those infected personnel in order to preserve the readiness of the remainder of the joint forces,”  said Allen.

Since March, dozens of FXD forensic DNA examiners, latent print examiners and explosive and drug chemists have deployed to work in military medical treatment facilities at Fort Gordon, Georgia, and at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, in support of Army Medical Command. They have also deployed to Camp Ripley, Minnesota, in support of a mobile medical lab set up to handle COVID-19 specimen testing in remote locations. 

The team transformed its current forensic instrumentation and software into a viral testing capability and also modified five mobile forensic laboratories to meet the needs of medical testing facilities for rapid deployment into austere locations, Allen said. 

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"Our FXD teams continue a high level of support to [Army Medical Command] with COVID-19 testing," Army Col. Jeremy Willingham, DFSC executive director, said after processing 8,000 swabs in one week alone. "In one single day, the FXD team accessioned, packaged and shipped 2,820 specimens from the USS America, USS Ronald Reagan, USS New Orleans, U.S. Naval Hospital in Okinawa and Camp Humphreys." 

The primary mission for FXD is global forensic exploitation support. However, the forward-leaning innovative thinking led to FXD truly supporting a full range of military operations, to include the global fight against this novel threat, Allen said. 

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