COVID-19 demonstrated gaps in the U.S. Navy’s maritime bio-preparedness. Through cruise lines’ struggle for survival, the pandemic will continue to offer a unique test bed for tactics, techniques and procedures, or TTP, as well as technologies to mitigate respiratory pathogens — specifically those passive measures most conducive to defense against bioweapons. The Navy should seize this opportunity to develop novel bio-preparedness solutions by partnering with the cruise industry.
Biological threats at sea, especially intentional threats, present exaggerated biosecurity challenges. Those aboard a ship share common living quarters, food and water supplies, and sanitation and ventilation systems. For respiratory viruses like COVID-19, this interdependence often results in high infection rates, typically about 12-41 percent of those aboard. Most recently before COVID-19, the 2009 H1N1 virus infected 32 percent of the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard’s 2,000-sailor crew.
The intentional biological threat is also real and particularly dangerous. As assessed by the Navy itself, intentional biological threats exist in all major military theaters, and U.S. adversaries likely see many operationally and politically advantageous uses of biological weapons. To best accomplish their aims, malicious actors will choose biological weapons causing the greatest harm to U.S. sailors and Marines — with rapid spreadability, a high infection mortality rate and delayed onset of symptoms to avoid symptomatic detection.
The potential of such a pathogen amplifies the already exaggerated maritime biothreat from pandemics.
COVID-19 outbreaks aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the destroyer Kidd reconfirmed the Navy’s current gaps in bio-preparedness. Despite the Navy’s efforts, five weeks after the first confirmed case, about 25 percent and 23 percent of their crews, respectively, tested positive (at which point the Navy stopped publicly reporting cases). Ultimately the Navy lost one sailor and the combined combat readiness of two vessels for over 15 weeks.
The Navy will remain neglectful of force protection and strategically vulnerable without further innovation. Yes, the Navy developed and continues to improve its COVID-19 protocols. Against an effective biological weapon, however, its slow pace of adaptation would fail to protect sailors and Marines. By the time the Navy adjusted its TTP, a bioweapon with a high infection fatality rate would have already rendered the Navy combat-ineffective because no rapid detection methods exist.
Luckily for the Navy, the pandemic seems likely to remain an unparalleled test bed for biological threat mitigation measures until at least the end of 2021. Slow vaccine rollouts and new strains of COVID-19 call into question the cruise industry’s reliance on vaccinations to save its businesses. This uncertainty points toward continued innovation opportunities.
While the Navy appears to have stabilized its COVID-19 crisis and bio-preparedness TTP, the cruise industry has only begun fighting the greatest war in its half-century history. The Navy’s approximate 45 percent vaccination rate combined with the military’s inherent bureaucracy have likely closed the internal window to experiment with less conventional bio-preparedness approaches.
Meanwhile, cruise lines have not yet restarted U.S. sailings since the first “No Sail Order” in March 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The stocks of leading cruise lines remain 45-65 percent of their pre-pandemic prices. Certain cruise companies have announced vaccination requirements for all passengers and crew, but at least five U.S.-based companies will rely on other measures to mitigate the virus’ spread.
This necessity will continue to spur innovation in the cruise industry’s bio-preparedness. In September, industry leaders announced their 74 “Recommendations from the Healthy Sail Panel.” In addition to implementing active testing, screening, contingency planning, excursion planning and exposure reduction requirements, cruise lines have mandated contact-tracing wearables, adapted filtration systems to 100 percent fresh air mix, and installed ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems and medical-grade H13 HEPA filters.
Contact-tracing wearables appear particularly promising because of the cruise industry’s prior experiences with the technology. Many cruise lines previously integrated wearables into their customers’ experiences, and some had centered customers’ experiences on wearables. Since COVID-19, certain wearables and software suites utilized by cruise lines have optimized for mission-critical contact tracing needs. The military has previously experimented with wearables. Such experiments, however, have focused on detecting illness in individual service members rather than supporting contact tracing. Cruise lines’ institutional experience applying wearables to maritime needs has enabled and will continue to enable them to rapidly adapt to the pandemic.
As cruises begin again, the industry will likely face more outbreaks just as the Navy has, and these outbreaks will require innovative responses. Unlike the Navy, the cruise industry cannot impose militaristic requirements on passengers. Without an enjoyable customer experience free from martial hygiene and testing, customers will spend their money elsewhere. Only passive bio-preparedness solutions that do not overly burden passengers can solve this challenge (i.e., automated electrostatic sprayers rather than upped hand-washing requirements).
The Navy most needs these passive solutions because they provide lasting preparedness against respiratory pathogens. After the panic of COVID-19 turns to neglect, active bio-preparedness measures reducing productivity and comfort will decline in use; this decline will return the Navy to its pre-pandemic, biosecurity-lacking posture. Passive solutions can sustainably beat the panic-neglect cycle because they require minimal, consistent human effort.
The U.S. Navy should take advantage of cruise lines’ innovation to improve its own bio-preparedness. At the very least, the Navy should fund a study of the cruise industry’s methods in order to identify effective technologies and best practices to institute across the fleet. This study could be enhanced by supporting ongoing research and development of cruise companies to quicken their innovation cycles, perhaps through aligned Small Business Innovation Research programs. One step further, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Joint Science and Technology Office for Chemical and Biological Defense could launch a program focused on maritime bio-preparedness technologies and TTP, and incentivize cruise lines and researchers to partner with each other.
Not often will the Navy encounter such an opportunity to innovate: It would do well for the American people, sailors, and Marines to seize it.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Zachary Shaw currently serves in the Reserves and is a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and its law center.