Pivoting to Counter a Pandemic
Since January 10th, the day Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of a novel coronavirus, researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command’s (USAMRDC) Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) have been working diligently to advance research efforts to prevent, diagnose, and treat this latest threat to global health and force readiness.
By Samir S. Deshpande, WRAIR
From Combat & Casualty Care, Summer 2020
Building on decades of strategic investment in broad capabilities and product-oriented biomedical research infrastructure, both the U.S. Army and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) have been able to consistently maintain a posture of readiness and response to emerging infectious diseases that threaten U.S. “Based upon WRAIR’s long experience developing vaccines for other viruses and recent work on coronaviruses, we have been able to move quickly in advancing a vaccine candidate against COVID-19,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of WRAIR’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch (EIDB).
Late last year, Modjarrad’s team published early findings from the first-in-human clinical trial of a vaccine against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, an infection from the same family as the virus that causes COVID-19. Currently, the EIDB is leading efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine to prevent COVID-19. WRAIR initially developed more than two dozen prototypes – which were, in turn, administered to nearly one thousand mice – to study the most promising binding and neutralizing antibody response in preclinical studies.
Identifying a Prototype
In June, researchers identified the most promising vaccine prototype, along with two backups, for future testing in human clinical trials, which are currently slated to begin in the early Fall. WRAIR’s vaccine, called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (SpFN) is one of many vaccines currently in development across both the public and private sectors. WRAIR scientists are working closely with other institutions – and, simultaneously through the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed – to advance other vaccine candidates.
Researchers hope the ferritin vaccine platform will also pave the way for a universal vaccine to protect against not only the current virus, but also other currently known coronaviruses and unknown species that could arise in the future. The adjuvant being tested as part of the vaccine effort, ALFQ, was also developed at WRAIR and was awarded a patent in 2019.
“This is what we do, and we have a strong track record,” said Dr. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Center for Infectious Disease Research (CIDR). “WRAIR has played a role in the development of nearly half of the vaccines available today.”
As part of WRAIR’s commitment to the aforementioned Operation Warp Speed, which is the aggressive public–private partnership effort introduced to facilitate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 related countermeasures, Army scientists partner closely with researchers at other U.S. government agencies to coordinate efforts and leverages capabilities. “We are working non-stop, along with our interagency partners, academia and private industry, to ensure we have a safe and effective tool to prevent new infections, ” Michael said.
ADVANCING ANTIBODY TESTING
As an example of WRAIR’s enduring commitment to combatting the pandemic, back in February the Institute’s Diagnostic Countermeasures Branch engaged an industry partner to develop a high throughput platform to scale up the Army’s ability to rapidly and accurately test Soldiers and their beneficiaries for COVID-19 infection as well as antibody tests to determine who, exactly, had been infected. The branch continues to work extensively with military treatment facilities to leverage regional diagnostic laboratories for COVID-19 testing to help clinicians triage and manage patients.
Currently, WRAIR scientists are also conducting research to identify other novel therapies for COVID-19. Using artificial intelligence and high-throughput screening technology, they are testing millions of compounds for activity against COVID-19. The most promising candidates are then tested in cells at a partner laboratory. In addition, they are conducting studies to identify and characterize monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), a type of immunotherapy. WRAIR has proven experience in this area, having successfully isolated mAbs for other viral pathogens.