The Army has a long history of fighting infectious disease. Prior to World War I most battlefield deaths were caused by disease. Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) are significantly contributing to the ongoing COVID-19 response. WRAIR has a robust infrastructure and decades of experience that allows researchers to rapidly respond to outbreaks and develop tests, vaccines and treatments on an accelerated timeline. With clinical research sites and laboratories all over the world, the military and civilian scientists can identify and prepare for emerging infectious disease threats.
“WRAIR was established 127 years ago to combat these type of health threats,” said WRAIR Commander Col. Deydre Teyhen. “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.” WRAIR has a long legacy of response to emerging infectious diseases. It was the first to test humans for the current Ebola vaccine, Ervebo, and develop a Zika vaccine from conception to human testing in less than 9 months. These are just a few of their many accomplishments in the field.
Dr. Kavon Modjarrad is the director of WRAIR’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch (EIDB) and is leading the COVID-19 efforts to develop a vaccine. “We have been working on this since the beginning of the outbreak. If we hadn’t done that, we’d be weeks behind,” he said. Modjarrad’s experience with other coronavirus strains will be invaluable to these efforts. He was a researcher on the first human trial of a Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) vaccine candidate and recently published the results. It is a coronavirus strain with a fatality rate of nearly 40%.
The EIDB research team has been working on a vaccine for almost three months now with promising early results. “Personnel at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), in partnership with other laboratories in the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC), are working quickly to develop a safe and effective vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection. In the first days after COVID-19 was first identified as a new threat, we began designing our vaccine approach. On January 9th, when the first genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the illness known as COVID-19, were published, we started work on our vaccine,” said Modjarrad.
“Currently, my core team of approximately 20 scientists is designing, developing and testing several different versions of our vaccine in mice to identify the most promising candidate. From there, we plan to take that vaccine forward for testing in larger animals and humans. We are currently on track to begin recruiting for a first-in-human trial in July and start the first vaccinations in September,” he said.
The team is also working closely with academic, government and industry efforts to develop other vaccines in an effect to get a vaccine to the public as soon as possible. “WRAIR is a singular national asset for developing vaccines, whether our own homegrown candidate or another on which we partner. We want to get a horse across the finish line as fast as possible, whether it’s ours or someone else’s, to protect our military families and civilians as soon as possible. At this early stage, having several vaccines in the pipeline improves the chances and pace of getting a successful vaccine for the public,” Modjarrad shared.
The team is facing many challenges particularly that currently, there are no FDA-approved vaccines against any coronavirus. They also have some advantages. “We have experience studying other coronaviruses and we have developed some vaccines against some of those other coronaviruses. I have been fortunate to be the principal investigator of the first-in-human vaccine for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus at WRAIR. The approaches we took for that vaccine and other approaches that are being used for COVID-19 have been tested for other viruses as well. This gives us a little bit of a head start in making a vaccine for COVID-19,” he said.
Like many first responders and health care professionals, they are facing the challenge of this work amid a pandemic. They face the same daily challenges of taking care of children and parents while working to prevent the spread of the virus.
In addition to working on a vaccine the scientists at WRAIR, as part of the Army response, are working with government and industry partners on a range of efforts to prevent and treat the illness. Modjarrad said, “In addition to the vaccine, there are other prevention strategies, to include specific antibodies that can be used as treatments. We are also working with partners to understand how best to select plasma, a fraction of blood, from survivors that can be transferred into sick COVID-19 patients as another treatment option. Our Experimental Therapeutics Branch is also partnering with industry and using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to screen libraries of more than six million compounds for their activity against COVID-19 to design new drugs from scratch. They are working on existing drugs that can be used for COVID-19.”
With talented researchers such as Dr. Modjarrad and his team, there is a lot to be hopeful for regarding future treatments and the prevention of COVID-19 and other coronaviruses.
Marguerite Cleveland is a freelance writer who specializes in human interest and travel stories. She is a military brat, a veteran and now a military spouse. Her military experience is vast as the daughter of a Navy man who served as an enlisted sailor and then Naval Officer. She served as an enlisted soldier in the reserves and on active duty, then as an Army Officer. She currently serves as a military spouse. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two sons. Visit her website www.PeggyWhereShouldIGo.com