US, South Korean health experts team up to contain North Korean pandemic risk

North Korea’s inflammatory rhetoric and atomic weapons testing aren't the only concerns for U.S. officials, as an even bigger threat than nuclear Armageddon may be lurking within the communist nation’s borders: The threat of deadly disease.

In 2010, a report from Amnesty International painted a grim picture of North Korea’s crumbling health care system, with witnesses and health care workers recounting barely-functioning hospitals, multiple medication shortages and epidemics caused by malnutrition.  These findings fell in line with the World Health Organization’s estimates from 2006, which revealed that North Korea spends less on health care than any other country in the world – less than $1 per person.

Given the country’s extreme medical deficiencies, U.S. military officials soon grew concerned over the possibility of a lethal pathogen originating within North Korea, as the nation’s health care officials would be nearly powerless to stop the spread of infection.  And if such an illness were to continue to expand, a global pandemic would likely occur.

In order to prevent such a catastrophic event, the U.S. Army launched in October the Joint United States Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition program – also known as JUPITR.  A collaboration between American and South Korean doctors, JUPITR utilizes advanced technologies to monitor the border between North and South Korea for potential disease agents that could become serious health hazards.

“North Korea being right up against South Korea, it’s an area we’re concerned about,” Peter Emanuel, the JUPITR ATD Lead and division chief of the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center BioSciences, told “A disease doesn’t pay attention to a line drawn on a map.  They move in their own set of rules.  [For them,] the world is ‘flat,’ and diseases recognize they can move wherever they want.”

JUPITR acts as one big red flag, alerting officials stationed in South Korea of emerging bio-threats in the area. Emanuel noted that the program is broad in focus, with the ability to identify both naturally occurring diseases – such as avian flu and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) – as well as state sponsored biological warfare, such as anthrax or plague.

To do this, the program has four main legs that all work together in disease-detecting harmony. The first of which is the biosurveillance portal – web-based technologies that attempt to expose a disease pandemic at its earliest stages before it becomes a global issue. JUPITR’s biosurveillance programs track all sorts of information that may be related to public health, including everything from the migratory patterns of birds to emerging health trends on social media.

“These surveillance programs might put two and two together and see something that might be coming,” Emanuel said. “They look at the number of times people say the word ‘vomit’ on Facebook, to outbreaks being reported in certain regions, to the number of bottles of Pepto Bismol being sold at Wal-Mart.  [It helps provide] a more informed, common operating picture – an attempt to bring everything together in a way you can digest and make a decision about it.”

The program’s second leg is biological identification capability sets (BICS), or in other words, on-site laboratory testing.  Currently, if doctors believe army personnel have been exposed to a disease agent, bio-samples must be shipped to labs thousands of miles away for analysis.  BICS aims to bring high quality laboratory capabilities to the field, closer to where forces are stationed, so that doctors can get answers in as little as four hours and respond quickly if necessary.

The third and fourth legs of JUPITR revolve around advanced environmental sensor technology, such as radar and antibody-based technology that can detect biological agents in the atmosphere.  In the coming months, program officials will test 10 different environmental field sensors to see which ones are best at sensing and identifying potential health risks; those that perform the best will be transported to Korea and integrated into various perimeter defense systems.

“The outcome we hope to get – the best case outcome – is a combination of technologies that gives [us] vigilance, that gives [us] the ability in a cost effective manner to analyze survey and inform commanders of any impending threats,” Emanuel said.

JUPITR’s technologies are currently located in four bases in South Korea, but Emanuel said they hope to expand the program within the Korean peninsula – and eventually to other countries around the world.  Emanuel noted that JUPITR is meant to serve as a pilot program for biosurveillance technologies in general, as the military hopes to start similar projects in U.S.-occupied nations such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, whose neighbors may pose similar pandemic threats.

“The medical capacity of a country is of great interest.  If you have healthy countries that have the ability to respond to situations, they make good neighbors.  But if a disease springs up and gains a foothold in a neighboring country, then it will quickly move over into your country,” Emanuel said. “… So the earlier you can apply counter measures…you minimize casualties and minimize loss.”