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JBLM unit fights ticks and COVID

PHC-P EMBLS shift gears to battle virus

Gary Crispell, a Public Health Command-Pacific microbiologist, simulates how to test a sample for at the Naval Health Research Center satellite laboratory co-located at Naval Hospital Yokosuka, Japan. Photo by Amber Kurka

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TRIPLER ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, HONOLULU - For Public Health Command-Pacific Environmental Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) personnel keeping others safe from disease is a top priority.

Located at Camp Zama, Japan, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the EMBLs' mission is to protect the health of the force from vector borne diseases found in ticks, mosquitos, and fleas by testing arthropod samples found in austere environments.

These services provide commanders insight to help mitigate disease risk and exposure in the Department of Defense community.

"Our EMBLs are always on the cutting edge of identifying new diseases emerging in our area of responsibility," explained Capt. Bradley Kearney, a biochemist and the PHC-P Laboratory Sciences director. "Normally, this is going to be vector borne diseases, but the EMBL mission is evolving."

In January, Kearney and his team began tracking the news of an emerging new virus, SARS-CoV-2, with the help of Dr. Michael Butel, PHC-P's chief of epidemiology. As the new disease, COVID-19, evolved, the team began to strategize ways the team could help clinical labs in Japan and Washington in the event of a pandemic.

"We were having meetings frequently in preparation for what we anticipated would be a pandemic before it was hardly even called an epidemic," said Kearney. "We normally don't do human testing, but we were very far leaning forward in offering our hand out to assist other laboratory facilities, which have the certification to do human testing but did not have sufficient manpower or equipment to maintain a sustained testing surge."

As the weeks continued, PHC-P leadership and the EMBL teams worked to identify critical laboratory assets and skill sets to help with clinical testing at Madigan Army Medical Center (MAMC) and the Naval Health Research Center satellite laboratory co-located at Naval Hospital Yokosuka, Japan.

"Laboratory assets can take a very long time to spin up," Kearney explained. "To get someone qualified to do laboratory testing the minimum threshold requires more than 50 weeks of advanced individual training, then an individual will need to do months of training in a clinical hospital. In order to have a rapid response we tapped into those that already had the training in place. Since our team conducts vector laboratory testing regularly, we had 100% of our staff from both Japan and JBLM go to support clinical efforts due to the limited availability of laboratory testers."

To help fight COVID-19, Gary Crispell, a microbiologist, and Kearney launched COVID-19 testing in Japan while Milagros Solá, a microbiologist, and Spc. Darius Torres, a medical laboratory technician, supplemented the clinical lab staff at MAMC.

"You have to be highly qualified and trained on the right equipment to do COVID-19 testing," said Solá. "We have to make sure that we are following all of the proper protocols to not only keep ourselves safe but to also make sure the samples are processed accurately. The results could be life or death for someone. Additionally, it takes a really special person to work under the stress and pressure of processing COVID-19 samples, because the results were needed by the medical staff yesterday."

One of the most time-consuming portions of COVID-19 testing involved lysing, the process of breaking down a cell in order to release the genetic material for each sample.

"Every sample needs to be lysed and it could be a long process, since you have to pipette the sample multiple times before it can go onto an instrument to process it," explained Torres. "If you don't have enough people in the lab, you end up wasting a lot of time going back and forth between lysing the samples and running the equipment."

By supplementing the lab staff at MAMC, Torres and Solá were able to take some of the stress off their clinical counterparts.

Kearney and Crispell, on the other hand, worked around the clock with one Navy contractor, Sheila Trisler, to single-handedly set up testing efforts for DoD personnel and family members stationed in Japan.

"Rather than send samples back to San Diego to be processed, which would take precious time, we partnered with the Navy to stand up a testing location at the NHRC satellite lab," explained Kearney.

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