SILVER SPRING, MD—Two Army research groups are tackling the critical task of developing a vaccine for the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
The novel coronavirus has shut down large segments of the U.S. economy, infected almost half a million Americans and killed more than 16,500 U.S. residents. It also has not left the military unscathed. In the last five days the number of servicemembers testing positive for SARS-Cov-2 more than doubled, reaching nearly 2,000.
Of those, 64 have required hospitalization, including a crew member of the USS Theodore Roosevelt who was moved to an intensive care unit on Guam on April 9 after being found unresponsive on the ship. Another 415 sailors on the Theodore Roosevelt have tested possible, representing about 10% of the total crew.
The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s (WRAIR) Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch (EIDB) has developed several versions of a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus. All the variations on the vaccine are based on a platform previously tested in humans. Pre-clinical studies of one of the variants, which is being tested in mice, began in February.
“We have been working on this since the beginning of the outbreak. If we hadn’t done that, we’d be weeks behind.” said Kayvon Modjarrad, MD, PhD, director of EIDB. “Based upon WRAIR’s long experience developing vaccines for other viruses and recent work on coronaviruses, we’ve been able to move quickly in advancing a vaccine candidate.”
Modjarrad and his colleagues work on another vaccine for the coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was recently published in the Lancet.
WRAIR has long led U.S. efforts to develop vaccines and therapies to protect the country against emerging infectious diseases. The WRAIR team developed a Zika vaccine in under nine months. The Walter Reed scientists were also the first to test the currently licensed Ebola vaccine in humans.
“WRAIR was established 127 years ago to combat these type of health threats,” said WRAIR Commander, Col. Deydre Teyhen, PhD. “We have every confidence in our civilian and soldier scientists to work at the speed of relevance to develop new products to protect and treat our service members, beneficiaries and the global community.”
Researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) have also entered the fray against COVID-19. While some work at USAMRIID was paused because of safety concerns, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the institute the all-clear to resume all operations on March 27. The stoppage did not affect research on the novel coronavirus.
“The true heroes in this fight are the medical professionals — people like the scientists and researchers at USAMRIID,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. “They’re working on vaccinations, treatments and better ways to conduct tests that will ultimately help the nation defeat the virus.”