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DoD Leverages GEIS Respiratory Surveillance to Respond to COVID-19

Image of Three men in a pig pen taking samples. Staff from the U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit 6, better known as NAMRU-6, perform sampling on swine and swine workers in Peru. This testing helps monitor the transmission of potential respiratory pathogens.

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Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division | Coronavirus

As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and spread around the world, the Department of Defense funded health surveillance activities to rapidly support military forces living and working in the U.S. and abroad. Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch’s Global Emerging Infection Surveillance (GEIS) program manages a global laboratory network and uses analytical processes to detect emergent diseases and track respiratory illnesses such as influenza.

This GEIS-supported respiratory network, comprised of partnerships with Army, Navy, and Air Force public health and medical research laboratories, includes hundreds of surveillance sites in over 30 countries.

These surveillance locations are selected based on inputs from the regional laboratories and in coordination with the Geographic Combatant Commands. GEIS also funds and maintains surveillance of DoD Service members through the DoD Global Respiratory Pathogen Surveillance Program, which tests samples from over 100 sentinel site locations and is operated by the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. In addition, GEIS supports recruit and ship-board surveillance activities operated by Naval Health Research Center. Respiratory pathogens, bacteria and viruses that can cause diseases, present a unique challenge for recruit and ship-board populations due to their close living conditions and activities that can enable the rapid spread of infections and significantly impact force readiness.

“GEIS-funded surveillance provides the foundation for rapid testing so that a better understanding of the incidence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus can be established,” said U.S. Public Health Service Cmdr. (Dr.) Mark Scheckelhoff, lead for the GEIS Respiratory Infections portfolio. “Through the long-term investments to build and maintain this network of laboratory locations, we have an extensive analytical capability. GEIS has enabled our partners to respond to the ongoing pandemic and detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 around the world.”

Through GEIS support, laboratory partners conduct many investigations including the sampling of animal markets and farm locations in four countries. These efforts include sampling of avian and swine species, as well as the workers at a particular location. Samples are then analyzed for novel influenza or other emerging pathogens with pandemic potential. 

Each laboratory within the network is able to perform highly sensitive and specific testing on respiratory samples and together process approximately 30,000 samples per year. These samples are collected in various clinics and military medical treatment facilities from individuals presenting with influenza-like-illness (ILI) symptoms.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of samples analyzed for the 2019-2020 season remains to be determined, but over 45,000 analytical tests on ILI samples have already been performed,” stated Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Kevin Taylor, GEIS focus area chief.

GEIS coordinates closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other partners to ensure the data is shared. They also present annual influenza data from DoD populations to the Food and Drug Administration, to help determine the composition of the seasonal influenza vaccine for the United States.

“GEIS coordinates information sharing activities related to the development of countermeasures, vaccines, and other interventions to support the ongoing pandemic and place the network in a good position to address future threats,” said Navy Capt. Guillermo Pimentel.

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