COLUMBUS, Ohio — Four chicken eggs sat on a table in a Battelle lab yesterday. The top of one was cracked open. A hard-boiled breakfast, perhaps.
This is a scene that the six men standing around in camouflage pants and protective coats could encounter in the field. Their training, though, has taught them that this isn’t a meal. The nearby syringes were clues.
It’s a virus-production setup, or it could be. In the same way that viruses for flu vaccines are grown in eggs, a terrorist can grow virulent strains of other viruses in them.
“Where would we find our purest sample” of the virus? asked Staff Sgt. Justin Johnson, survey-team chief of the Michigan National Guard’s 51st Civil Support Team.
It could be in the egg, said Stacy Dean, high-hazard biology manager at Battelle, who was instructing the group. But it also could be in a piece of equipment, depending on the stage of virus production, she said.
Every state’s National Guard has a civil support team — a full-time group whose job is to respond to terrorist attacks and other disasters. They’re also on standby at major events to advise police and emergency-management officials.
Battelle has helped train those teams since 2007. The current contract, in effect since 2010, is worth up to $18 million to the Columbus-based research institute.
Nearly all of the 2,100 military members and other Defense Department employees on the teams have gone through the training in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. But Battelle is now offering advanced applied-science courses in Columbus for those troops.
The six men at Battelle yesterday are from the Michigan, Florida, Mississippi and Maryland national guards. They are near the end of a two-week program in biological warfare and bioterrorism, which includes instruction about viruses in eggs, or dangerous bacteria that could be made using home beer-brewing kits (another scene presented to them).
Three weeks of work in chemistry and radioactivity follow. Team members can take all the courses in five straight weeks, or just take individual subjects.
“The commanders of the teams may or may not have a science background,” said Lt. Col. Michael Harlow, commander of the Mississippi National Guard’s team. “This is a refresher.”
Battelle worked with the Ohio National Guard to develop some of the training, said Capt. David Foster, operations officer for the Ohio Guard team. An Ohio Guard member is to take a course in the next month.
Troops need some applied-science education to do their jobs, said Tina Jay, a Battelle research scientist and one of the biology instructors. They need to know terminology, for example, to properly communicate with experts.
Most everyone on one of these teams already can recognize that the setups presented yesterday are potential problems, said Johnson, the Michigan staff sergeant. The higher-level courses help troops figure out the details.
“It takes you into the weeds” of the science, he said.