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US Army Medical Research and Development Command laboratory studying new coronavirus

Soldier-Scientists from the 1st Area Medical Laboratory’s Bio Team check a blood plate for bacterial growth at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

ANGEL D. MARTINEZ-NAVEDO/U.S. ARMY

By HEATHER MONGILIO | The Frederick News-Post | Published: March 4, 2020

FREDERICK, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Units from an Army command based at Fort Detrick are working to better understand and prepare to respond to the new coronavirus.

Several units that fall under the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, including the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, are working on understanding or preventing COVID-19, which has infected nearly 90,000 people globally, said Col. Wendy Sammons-Jackson, director of the Military Infectious Diseases Research Program under USAMRDC.

USAMRIID and the Walter Reed institute have or will receive samples of the coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2, Sammons-Jackson said in an email.

USAMRIID received a sample of the coronavirus so that researchers can build up a stock of the virus that can be used to test treatment and vaccine candidates, Sammons-Jackson said in an email.

Researchers at USAMRIID will use the sample to study how the coronavirus is different from other viruses, she said. They will have to test their batch to ensure the stock is reproducible and looks like the initial sample of the virus, which is used for future countermeasures.

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research should receive different blood parts from infected individuals from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, once the samples are available, Sammons-Jackson said.

The Walter Reed institute scientists have already identified specific areas of interest on the coronavirus and reproduced those, she said. The reproduced products will be used as an ingredient for some of the tests for the coronavirus.

USAMRDC laboratories are working on a COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine is already in pre-clinical development in animal models, Sammons-Jackson said. USAMRDC is also lending subject matter expertise to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that can help assess the current tests.

USAMRDC joins six pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi, working to develop vaccines, according to a STAT News article. Other pharmaceutical companies, including Gilead Sciences and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, are working on treatments.

Sammons-Jackson said USAMRDC and its government partners are moving at "revolutionary rates" in order to find effective treatment options and prevention measures. USAMRDC laboratories overseas are ready to conduct surveillance activities to help support regional and Department of Defense response efforts, she said.

USAMRDC units also studied the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, caused by a coronavirus similar to that causing COVID-19, as well as the 2009 swine flu outbreak, she said.

The SARS outbreak that started in 2002 was a complete surprise, Sammons-Jackson said, especially because at that time coronaviruses were not known to cause severe respiratory disease. COVID-19 is different enough to surprise epidemiologists and other disease scientists when it comes to the spread, but now they know coronavirus can cause severe disease and how the viruses spread through the respiratory system.

As of Monday, there were more than 90 confirmed cases of the disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of the more than 90 cases, at least 40 cases come from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

The source of the new virus is likely human interaction with animals, Sammons-Jackson said.

“With the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, we are putting the lessons we learned from both SARS and swine flu to the test,” she said.

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