WRAIR Pivots to Combat COVID-19

scientist pour 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 refined 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 (CIDR).

Scaling up Diagnostics
The Institute’s Diagnostic 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 (EIDB) is leading efforts to develop a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection with COVID-19. WRAIR initially developed more than two dozen prototypes, administered to nearly one thousand mice, to study the most promising binding and neutralizing antibody response in preclinical studies.

In June, researchers identified the most promising vaccine prototype, along with two backups, for future testing in human clinical trials, currently slated to begin in early Fall. WRAIR’s vaccine, called the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle (SpFN) is one of many currently in development. Our scientists are working closely with other institutions and also through Operation Warp Speed to advance other vaccine candidates.

Researchers hope the ferritin vaccine platform could 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.

“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,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of EIDB.  Modjarrad recently published the results of the first-in-human trial of a Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) vaccine candidate. MERS, another coronavirus in the same family as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is a deployment and global health concern due to its high fatality rate of nearly 40%.

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 (mAbs), a type of immunotherapy. WRAIR has proven experience in this area, having successfully isolated mAbs for other viral pathogens.

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 (AFRIMS), 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 type of health threats," said WRAIR Commander Col. Deydre Teyhen. "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.”

Behavioral health resources developed by WRAIR for COVID-19 are available here.

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