National Immunization Awareness Month: The DoD Innovation Advantage

25 Aug 2022

Recognizing DoD Innovations that Help to Prevent the Spread of Disease

National Immunization Awareness Month is a perfect time to acknowledge that our modern world was built on innovations by scientists and engineers, many of whom work for the Department of Defense (DoD).

By: Sithira Ratnayaka, PhD, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, U.S. Department of Defense

Photo By: Todd Maki, Air Force, U.S. Department of Defense

COVID-19 changed the world in 2020 as one of the largest pandemics in recent history. Unbeknownst to the general public, the DoD's world-class scientists have been hard at work for years to protect us from just such a situation. DoD's scientists and engineers have been deeply involved in fundamental research on coronaviruses and were able to adapt quickly and respond to shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), to help guide the Nation and the world through the pandemic.

DoD laboratory scientist research around new pathogens is well established. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funds research on vaccines created with nucleic acids, as opposed to traditional vaccines which were created using a weak or inactivated version of the germ. This technology is now used in today's COVID-19 vaccines, but DARPA had been researching this technique since 20101 when their goal was to protect them from new pathogen exposure during deployment. In fact, in 2017 DARPA announced the Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3) to counteract a lack of effective responses to new diseases, such as Zika and Ebola. P3 aims to develop a rapid response against any infectious threat in order to keep the outbreak from escalating. Through P3, DARPA funds cutting-edge research.2

When COVID-19 erupted as a threat to our Nation and world, DARPA researchers were ready to apply their research and help the general public. Dr. Amy Jenkins, manager of DARPA's antibody program and P3, said in Science Magazine that rapid development and production of COVID-19 vaccines was in part possible thanks to the groundwork that DARPA had already laid3. P3 has also been invaluable in battling the disease. The first iteration of a COVID-19 antibody treatment, bamlanivimab, was the fastest release in history. This feat would not be possible without the groundwork already laid by DARPA scientists.

In addition to vaccines, the DoD also played a role in making protective equipment (PPE) more readily available. Given the sudden surge in demand for N-95 masks, innovative solutions were needed in order to protect frontline workers as well as the general population. One solution came from the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity's (USAMMDA's) Warfighter Expeditionary Medicine and Treatment Project Management Office (WEMT PMO)4. Under the direction of Maj. Daniel Williams, the WEMT PMO collaborated with a multitude of other service branches and research labs and developed 3D-printed respirators to be used with replaceable N95 filters. The fabricated N95 respirators are able to filter 95% of significant particulate, which proved to be highly effective against COVID-19. The printed respirators also supply a frame for the disposable N95 filters which extended their use and helped alleviate supply-chain issues.

Thanks to the tireless work of people like Dr. Amy Jenkins and Maj. Daniel Williams, our Nation is better prepared for new diseases. As we recognize National Immunization Awareness Month, we can continue to help prevent the spread of disease via protection through immunization and PPE.

Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Natalia Murillo, U.S. Department of Defense

Photo by: Jeffrey Soares, Army, U.S. Department of Defense

  1. Link for DARPA’s COVID-19 webpage: darpa.mil/work-with-us
  2. Link for Pandemic Prevention Platform: darpa.mil/program/pandemic-prevention-platform
  3. Link for Science Magazine’s Article: www.science.org
  4. Link for information on the WEMT PMO 3D-printed masks: www.army.mil