The Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic was an eye-opening experience for the world in many ways. For those on the front-lines, including physicians and other healthcare providers, personal protective equipment (PPE) became one of the most important aspects of protecting themselves and being able to deliver good care during the height of the pandemic. Ironically, PPE was one of the first shortages healthcare organizations faced, as hospitals and medical offices were simply not ready or equipped for the surge in cases and the congruently increased demand for protective equipment.
But PPE has been critical beyond just the Covid-19 pandemic in a variety of different settings: keeping physicians safe from contagious diseases, protecting rescue workers and first-responders in precarious environments, and shielding armed forces and military personnel from dangerous exposures are just a few examples of why PPE has been a critical aspect of human health innovation.
Recognizing this value, the U.S. government is creating a new program to take this concept a step further by attempting to develop “Personalized Protective Biosystem” (PPB) technology.
Earlier this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that it would be starting an initiative and supporting teams to develop PPB in order to “Defend Against Chemical, Biological Threats from Inside and Out.”
The press release explains: “Chemical and biological (CB) threats have become increasingly ubiquitous and diverse, presenting significant risks to warfighters in theater and stability operators during pandemic outbreaks. State-of-the-art personal protective equipment (PPE) can be bulky, heavy, and cumbersome, often severely limiting user mobility and performance. The Personalized Protective Biosystem (PPB) program aims to develop technology that reduces the need for burdensome protective equipment while increasing individual protection against CB threats.”
The idea behind this initiative will be to leverage lightweight materials and “adaptable, tissue-protective countermeasures” to provide an elevated ecosystem of safety.
Eric Van Gieson, the program manager for the PPB initiative, explains that “PPB aims to address PPE limitations, including threat-specific vulnerabilities, thermal/logistical burdens, and potential exposure risks […] The capability to provide unburdened CB protection will be invaluable in maximizing time on target, providing operational flexibility, extending mission duration, and enabling operations in austere environments, regardless of the threat.”
The program will be split into “two technical areas,” with the first focusing on preventing “external contact between the threat and the body, providing 100% survival against more than 10 CB agents with smart, lightweight materials,” and the second area aiming to create a system that “neutralize threats at vulnerable internal tissue barriers (i.e. skin, airway, ocular) using a configurable countermeasure.”
This is important not only because of how it will protect military and front-line personnel in years to come, but also because of the widespread impact this technology may potentially have for the civilian world. Indeed, many of the things that people use today and often take for granted are originally military inventions: from canned foods, to super-glue, to microwaves, and even some iterations of the internet, society has benefited tremendously from military projects.
Indeed, if it wasn’t already evident with multiple Ebola outbreaks, the growing prevalence of chemical warfare, and the rampant pollution worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the value and importance of personal protective gear, as even a basic mask was proven to reduce the spread of viral particles.
This new initiative and investment by the military is vital, not just for military purposes or for those on the front-lines; rather, it may be the basis to create technology that will potentially serve the health and welfare of millions of people for generations to come.