The cinder block hallways inside the US Army’s top virus research lab are punctuated every few feet with windows that peer into tiny offices and laboratories crammed with scientific equipment. On each doorway, orange placards with that Vulcan-looking biohazard symbol keep visitors alert. Through one window, you can just make out the heads of two people dressed in Tyvek suits and respirators. They seem to be laughing about something, but their work is deadly serious.
The pair are growing the SARS CoV-2 virus in round plastic dishes. In February, the CDC sent the Army about 10 drops of blood from one of the first Covid-19 patients, a Washington state man in his fifties who was the epidemic’s first US death. Since then, the Army researchers isolated the virus and have been making more of it to ship to other labs designing a vaccine or treatment against coronavirus.
If any science lab should be poised to tackle the current outbreak, it’s the US Army Institute of Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID. This squat tan-colored facility sits in the middle of the sprawling grounds of Fort Detrick, Maryland, about an hour north of Washington, DC. Its scientists have been handling the world’s most dangerous organisms since the late 1960s.
From the Rift Valley fever that struck Egypt in the early 1970s to the Zika outbreak in 2018, USAMRIID researchers have devised dozens of treatments and countermeasures, most recently an Ebola vaccine approved by the FDA and licensed to Merck in 2019. It’s also had its share of controversy. In 1989, USAMRIID was involved in a near-miss Ebola outbreak that spawned The Hot Zone book and TV miniseries, as the researchers responded to an outbreak of a strain of ebola at a monkey facility in Reston, Virginia, that killed several dozen monkeys. (Several workers were exposed and got sick, but the virus did not spread.) Decades later, in a separate incident, FBI officials alleged that researcher Bruce Ivins was behind the anthrax terror case in 2001. (He died by an apparent suicide in 2008 just before agents arrived to arrest him, and investigative reporting has since raised doubts about the FBI’s conclusions.)
Today, the germ warriors of USAMRIID are hunkering down to fight the novel coronavirus. They are figuring out how it spreads, and learning how it infects different lab animals. This information is vital in order to accurately test new vaccines and therapeutics against the virus. One of their main tasks will be to develop an animal model which can be used to test possible treatments before they reach human clinical trials. Senior science adviser Louise Pitt directs the aerobiology lab at USAMRIID and has worked on Ebola, anthrax, ricin and the Marburg virus in her 30-year career here. Pitt says her team is gearing up for an expected rush of work in the coming weeks as more vaccines and drugs candidates that are being advanced by academic and commercial labs come online. (Their lab has several dozen cooperative agreements to test contenders that arise from separate agencies, labs, and universities.)
Pitt’s team is developing an animal model for any vaccine or treatment. Because this is the first time humans have encountered this particular coronavirus, there’s no established way to test vaccines to make sure that the progress of the disease (and the possible cure) in an animal mirrors how it will progress in humans. “Not all animals get sick from coronavirus,” says Pitt. “You have to find the animal species that has a disease that looks similar to humans. If you give the disease to an animal and it just sheds the virus and doesn’t get sick, it won’t help you.”
Commercially-available laboratory mice don’t possess the same ACE2 receptor that the virus uses to enter and destroy human cells. So any drug or vaccine tests will have to use a genetically-modified mouse, which isn’t widely available, or find a different kind of animal. Pitt says her team is considering other rodents, such as hamsters and ferrets, as well as a nonhuman primate, the African green monkey, which was identified by USAMRIID scientists last year as an animal model for test vaccines for the MERS virus. “It’s going to take a year to build up enough animals and get the data to know that it’s really relevant,” Pitt says.
By this summer, Pitt expects more than 100 military and civilian scientists and lab technicians to be involved in the coronavirus effort. Many will be doing the important but tedious work of developing tests that determine whether or not an animal shows an immune response, and whether the vaccine or treatment is working against the virus. “We have to develop the chemical assays to measure everything,” Pitt says. “We have to test for the immune response, the host response, and the disease progression. Because it’s a new virus, all the tools have to be built from scratch.”