COVID-19 News

Airlocks, sneeze labs, and ferrets: How Fort Detrick is fighting COVID-19

US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) scientist at Fort Detrick—the same Army researchers who helped develop vaccines for anthrax, the plague and Ebola—have been working double shifts growing large amounts of the COVID-19 virus at this sprawling lab complex.

Fort Detrick has one of the country's few labs with biosafety level 4-specialized equipment, allowing researchers to work on the most deadly viruses. Since 1969, this warren of Army research labs known as USAMRIID has served as the Defense Department’s lead laboratory for medical biological defense research.

It's taken two weeks to grow a lot of COVID-19. Fort Detrick received its first vial of the virus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a month ago. Its scientists have started the genetic sequencing of the virus, using machines capable of fast, large-scale drug testing as well.

"We have a large capacity to be able to test a very large number of products. Most other places don't have that infrastructure to be able to develop or test as many products at a time," according to Dr. John Dye, the USAMRIID viral immunology chief. "There are at least eight different companies that are developing vaccines that all can be assessed looking for safety in humans... Having multiple shots on goal is our best chance of being able to basically battle this virus."

It has worked with biotech firms such as Gilead to discover drugs including Remdesivir -- an antiviral to fight Ebola -- which may work on COVID-19. USAMRIID has worked with the CDC, National Institutes of Health [NIH] and private drug companies to bring these drugs to market.
This past December, a vaccine for Ebola produced in conjunction with Merck received its license, a key step in Food and Drug Administration [FDA] approval. It was several years in the making, but these Army labs found the key particle that led to the discovery.

The Army scientists working with COVID-19 have used level 3 gear because the virus is less lethal than Ebola, but still highly contagious. After their work shifts, scientists and their protective gear are decontaminated in a biosafety airlock with high-pressure chemical showers that act like a car wash.

These level 4 labs at Fort Detrick have shifted to COVID-19 research, doubling their ability to find therapeutic drugs and, eventually, a vaccine. They have used sneeze labs -- a technology the U.S. Army invented -- to test how the virus has spread through the air.

"It would mimic you and I walking through someone's sneeze. There's a swirl of virus within droplets, so it doesn't exist just in air, but it's in fine droplets of many different sizes,” Maj. Sabrina McGraw, a scientist in the Center for Aerobiology at USAMRIID, explained. "Large droplets would land on your mouth and eyes, maybe on your hands, on surfaces, small droplets. You breathe them into your nostrils. Some of them make it past your projections, get deep into the lungs."

A vaccine may take 18 months. These researchers have been moving quickly to animal trials using known therapeutics. Tests using ferrets may eventually hold the key to curing coronavirus in people, according to Col. E. Darrin Cox, the commander of USAMRIID.

"The ferret is actually a good model. And so, the ACE 2 inhibitor gene that ferrets possess is similar to that in humans," Cox said. "One thing that's going on right now is active determination of the appropriate animal models to further study COVID-19."

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