On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic when the coronavirus wreaked havoc across the world. SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets causing over nine million people to become infected and has taken the lives of 477,000 people, to date worldwide. Due to the ease of this disease’s transmission, it was essential that the Department of Defense find a way to quickly and efficiently decontaminate aircraft transporting infected or potentially infected passengers. Leveraging already-existing technology and equipment would enable faster deployment of prevention measures.
One measure that was of high interest for the effort is the Joint Biological Agent Decontamination System (JBADS) Lite. JBADS Lite is a decontamination system that uses heat and humidity to disinfect the interior of an aircraft from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As it uses hot, humid air, it does not contain chemicals that could be corrosive to the aircraft and hazardous to the personnel using them.
The JBADS Program of Record began in 2014 with a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration. The JBADS demonstrated the hot, humid air decontamination process on a C-130 from biological agents, specifically the organism that causes Anthrax, both the inside and exterior of the aircraft. The Air Force was interested in this capability as it would return the contaminated aircraft back to full service without using chemicals. As the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense Materiel Developer, the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense’s (JPEO-CBRND) Joint Project Manager for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Protection (JPM CBRN Protection) was selected to demonstrate the capability for the Air Force.
A rapid response to applying the program of record technology and converting to this specific application for the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic posed a unique challenge. The Program of Record not only had to be adjusted to provide rapid response to USTRANSCOM’s urgent need to quickly decontaminate the interior of aircraft, but this capability had to be achieved amidst a global pandemic with the vast majority of the work force teleworking and DOD travel restrictions in full effect.
The Air Force provided the necessary funds through a Joint Urgent Operational Need (JUON) with requirements created by the Air Mobility Command (AMC) and Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) to use equipment that was already available within JBADS and modify some of the components to meet the needs of the current situation. This new effort, JBADS Lite, was quickly established by modifying existing equipment from the JBADS program. The JBADS team efficiently sped up the development process to meet JUON stakeholders’ needs. Stakeholders for the JBADS Lite include AMC, AFLCMC, Air Force Materiel Command, Agile Combat Support Directorate, CBRN Defense Systems Branch, AFRL, DTRA, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, and AFSOC. Interested observers also include NAVAIR and NAVSOC.
“Once we received the JUON to disinfect aircraft after the transport of COVID-19 positive patients, we reached out to a number of organizations to make sure we understood the capability of the JBADS Lite system and that we understood the science involved in killing the virus responsible for COVID-19,” said Maj Brendan Kallander, Co-Product Manager for JBADS Lite. “So for that we relied on work that DTRA and Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren have done with respect to identifying a surrogate for SARS CoV-2.”
Dover Air Force Base was chosen to support the JBADS Lite testing as it is accessible and close in proximity to the majority of the stakeholders. The JPEO-CBRND, AMC, and AFLCMC worked closely with the 436th Airlift Wing and the 436th Maintenance Wing to complete testing on an in-operation C-17.
"Team Dover is always willing to support AMC, USTRANSCOM and our many mission partners and stakeholders," said Col. Matthew Jones, 436th Airlift Wing commander. "Seeing firsthand the collaboration of all those involved and the speed with which the JBADS Lite testing and development was accomplished has instilled confidence in the great potential of this new aircraft decontamination procedure."
Testing involved using a surrogate virus, Phi-6, that has a similar structure to SARS-CoV-2 but is a bio-safety level 1 virus that would not put any personnel or the environment at risk. The surrogate virus was placed in tubes positioned throughout the interior of the C-17. The JBADS Lite, consisting of Aircraft Decontamination Unit heaters/humidifiers (ADU-H), a boiler to create the humidity and a heater to create the hot air, was connected via ductwork to the aircraft. The JBADS Lite was used to heat the aircraft in a very controlled manner to a temperature of 143 degrees Fahrenheit with a 90% relative humidity and then hold that temperature and dew point for at least one hour. Once the decontamination process was complete, the tubes were sent back to the lab to test for any remaining virus. The goal for this test was to kill at least 99.99% of the surrogate virus while also aiming to disinfect the aircraft and return it to full mission-capable status in three hours or less.
Several organizations and partners working together made this demonstration a reality. “The government teams, Dover Air Force Base, all the stakeholders, and AeroClave really worked together well,” said Ryan Adams, Product Manager for JBADS and Co-Product Manager for JBADS Lite. “Everyone was very dedicated to make this happen.”