WRAIR Pivots to Combat COVID-19

scientist pours liquid out of flask in fume hood

Building on decades of strategic investments into broad capabilities and a product-oriented research infrastructure, the U.S. Army and WRAIR have been able to consistently maintain a posture of readiness and response to the emerging infectious diseases that threaten U.S. and allied forces.

Our researchers are playing a key role in the ongoing COVID-19 response, building upon the Institute’s ability to rapidly respond to outbreaks on an accelerated timeline to develop diagnostics, vaccines and treatments.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, WRAIR and U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command personnel continue working to advance research efforts to prevent, diagnose and treat this latest threat to global health and force readiness.

WRAIR closely partners with researchers at other U.S. government agencies, and recent efforts to combat threats such as Ebola and Zika have helped refine coordination efforts. “Working in close collaboration with whole of U.S. government, along with academic and industry partners, we are well underway to effectively respond to this new threat,” said Dr. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Center for Infectious Disease Research.

Scaling up Diagnostics
The Institute’s Diagnostics and Countermeasures Branch is actively working with an industry partner to develop a platform to scale up the Army’s ability to rapidly and accurately test Soldiers and their beneficiaries for COVID-19 infection, determine when they are no longer infectious and track those who are infected without symptoms. WRAIR has a successful track record of developing high-throughput, sensitive diagnostics for viral diseases such as HIV and Ebola. They are already working with military treatment facilities to leverage existing regional diagnostic laboratories for COVID-19 testing to help clinicians triage and manage patients.

Developing a Vaccine
WRAIR’s Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch is leading efforts to advance a novel vaccine platform that aims to address the COVID-19 pandemic and counter future coronavirus threats, which began clinical testing in April, 2021.

Our scientists are taking a strategic long-term approach to their vaccine development efforts. EIDB, led by Army researcher Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, has developed a vaccine candidate called SpFN, or Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle. Ferritin is nearly ubiquitous in living organisms. The vaccine is unique among other COVID-19 vaccines in development because the nanoparticle’s multifaceted surface has been engineered to present specific pieces of the coronavirus spike protein (the part of the virus that attaches to the lungs) to the immune system many times over to elicit a strong immune response.

In the future, the vaccine might be adapted so that different faces of the nanoparticle present different coronaviruses to the immune system at the same time. Researchers theorize the vaccine platform could pave the way for a universal vaccine to protect against not only the current virus, but also other known and unknown coronaviruses that could arise in the future.

“The emergence of coronaviruses in human populations is accelerating and we need to be prepared for the eventuality that the current coronavirus mutates or other coronaviruses arise,” said Modjarrad. “That’s why we need a vaccine, like the one we’re developing, that can be used to protect broadly against all coronaviruses.”

Researching Novel Therapies
WRAIR researchers are also conducting research to identify novel therapies for COVID-19. Using artificial intelligence and high-throughput testing, they have screened millions of compounds for activity against COVID-19, identifying the most promising drug candidates for subsequent screening in cells. In addition, they are conducting studies to identify and characterize monoclonal antibodies, a type of immunotherapy. WRAIR has proven experience in this area, having successfully isolated mAbs for other viral pathogens.

Tracking Behavioral Health
In order to track the behavioral health impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists from the WRAIR and U.S. Army Public Health Center joined forces to organize the Behavioral Health Advisory Team—or BHAT—which surveyed more than 20,000 Soldiers across the globe in the Spring of 2020 about perceptions of COVID-19 and leadership response, behavioral health concerns and use of risk mitigation strategies.

“The study was designed to inform evidence-based recommendations for both leadership and public health communications strategies to slow the spread of the virus and mitigate its behavioral health impact. It also allows us to make strategic and actionable recommendations across different echelons of Army leadership,” said Dr. Phillip Quartana, a research psychologist at WRAIR and BHAT’s principal investigator. Information about the BHAT’s findings can be found here

APHC’s website maintains up-to-date information products on COVID-19 and WRAIR has developed a range of resources for leaders to be supportive and responsive to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic (examples of specific strategies leaders can use can be found here).

Researchers are planning follow-up studies to continue tracking these outcomes throughout 2021 in order to provide the most accurate data and relevant solutions to leadership and stakeholders across the Army.

WRAIR: Uniquely Qualified
WRAIR has a robust research and product development infrastructure, as well a long legacy of vaccine and drug development and proven ability to mount rapid responses to emerging infectious diseases. For example, WRAIR was the first to test in humans the currently licensed Ebola vaccine, Ervebo. Additionally, WRAIR scientists developed a Zika vaccine from conception to human testing in less than nine months. For therapy research, the Institute took part in the development of all currently used anti-malarial drugs worldwide.

WRAIR also has an expansive network of international clinical research sites and reference laboratories that enables military and civilian scientists to identify, anticipate and counter emerging infectious disease threats of greatest relevance to the U.S. and allied militaries. The Armed Forces Research Institute of the Medical Sciences, a WRAIR laboratory in Thailand, is assisting with COVID-19 diagnostics and surveillance as well as partner laboratories in several African countries.

WRAIR was established 127 years ago to combat these types of health threats," said WRAIR Commander Col. Clint Murray. "We have every confidence in our civilian and Soldier scientists to work at the velocity of relevance to develop new products to protect and treat our Service Members, beneficiaries and the global community.”

Please address all media inquiries to this email address. Laboratory images and b-roll can be found here and here. More resources can be found on WRAIR's DVIDS page.