Special report

the ventilation and air conditioning systems will be essential,” he says. “Longer term, we will also need modifications to the architecture of buildings and ships that give space to allow having different shifts that don’t cross contaminate each other.”

Improved testing

Michael was recently involved in reviewing two research studies on the transmission of Covid-19 throughout confined spaces. The first, an analysis of the crew on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, found that 77% of the infected crew members showed no signs of disease at the time of the initial diagnosis and 55% did not have symptoms at any time. “It was one of the first and definitive pieces of information that said [while] young people are going to get infected, they’re not going to be particularly ill and they’re likely to continue to transmit the virus throughout the whole crew,” he says. The second examined the effect of a phased quarantine of 1,848 recruits reporting to a land-based facility, a Marine Corps recruit depot in South Carolina, involving a two-week quarantine period at home followed by a two-week supervised quarantine on a college campus. It revealed that screening procedures to detect infection before and after quarantine needed to be strengthened, especially if the quarantine location is not highly secured. “18-year-olds are really good at sneaking out,” Michael notes with a smile. The occurrence of late infections during the supervised quarantine period also suggested that quarantine periods should probably be longer than two weeks. “If you do the standard test where you swab people’s noses, in some bases you find virus in people 30 days after they’ve been infected. Tests have led us to conclude that some people have a lot of dead virus around and some have a lot of live virus,” Michael explains. His institute is now working with partners to commercialise more sensitive and specific diagnostics, which can better assess who is going to be contagious and when. “If we can now make those available to commanders as well as university deans and so on, we’re going to be in a much better position to decide who stays in quarantine and for how long,” he says. On top of improved testing, Michael advises that procedures in the navy must include strict pre- deployment quarantine of crew members, isolation of infected individuals after a ship has left port, highly restricted shore leave, increased hygiene measures in common areas and continual risk assessment.

Balancing operational readiness with the health of the crew It’s one thing to lay out the steps that need to be taken, but any decision to suspend operations in a military setting is a complex one; commanding officers need to balance operational readiness with the physical and mental health of their staff in a confined environment. As Michael explains, “On the

USS Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, you’ve got 5,000 sailors on a steel hull floating around the Pacific and they’re not there for a pleasure cruise. There are consequences to a cruise ship going back into port that are financial and there are consequences to a warship going back into port in terms of degrading national security, so this has to be balanced.” In addition, when crew members are sick or at risk of falling ill, and they are not interacting with each other because they are afraid of being infected, they are not going to be doing their work to the best of their ability, Queyriaux stresses. “Of course, in this case, you have to redesign your mission,” he says. What has struck Michael over the past year is that even with these financial and security considerations, the military has put its people first. To illustrate the point, he mentions the email signature of the current chief of staff of the army, General McConville: “People first, winning matters, army strong”. “The last bit is old but the first bit is his and the amount of concern that senior army commanders have put into Covid to me has been really remarkable,” he says. “It’s a clear signal that the military cares about its people and that its people are the most valuable asset. I believe moving forward that the military will remain focused on data-driven solutions to find the balance between taking operational risks and taking public health risks.”

As for Queyriaux, he says every case is unique. But he is convinced that the commanders of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Charles de Gaulle made the best decisions they could at a challenging and complex moment. “Your point of view can change from hour to hour sometimes. The key point is the readiness of your crew and the awareness of the commanders and the top management. If they are aware of the different dimensions of the question, they can take the proper decision. Covid has allowed us to make a lot of progress on that.” Only time will tell whether the lessons that have been learned will effectively prepare the military for the next pandemic. It’s unlikely we will have to wait another century to find out. ●

Defence & Security Systems International / 15

In April 2020, 64% of the crew on the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle tested positive for Covid-19.

Joris van Boven/

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