While first responders and health care workers serve on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, Army researchers are battling behind the scenes in the fight for a cure.
Researchers at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, continuing the unit's mission to study, cure and contain the harmful pathogens at the root of global outbreaks and biological warfare.
The 'germ warriors' of USAMRIID
According to a report by Wired, USAMRIID's researchers received blood samples from one of the first U.S. citizens to contract the virus. These "germ warriors" isolated the SARS CoV-2 virus and have been reproducing copies to distribute to other research laboratories developing a cure or treatment.
USAMRIID has a disease-fighting history spanning more than 60 years. The unit was officially formed in 1956 with the mission of studying "naturally occurring infectious diseases of military importance" and serving as a defense against biological warfare. Upon its formation, USAMRIID first took on the project of developing a vaccine for Q fever. Since then, USAMRIID researchers have developed many successful vaccines, including an Ebola vaccine that was approved by the FDA in 2019, according to the Department of Defense.
Scientists at USAMRIID are currently working to identify an appropriate animal test subject for the COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, since standard lab mice do not respond to the disease in the same way as humans, due to their genetic makeup. Given the amount of work to be done, senior science adviser Louise Pitt estimates that more than 100 military and civilian scientists will join the ongoing research efforts by summer 2020.
"We have to develop the chemical assays to measure everything," Pitt told Wired. "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."
Given the unit's positive track record, Army leadership remains optimistic that a vaccine will be found. "U.S. Army researchers were critical during the SARS epidemic, the Zika virus and the Ebola outbreak as they helped develop antivirals and vaccines," said Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. "They've done it before and they will do it again."
U.S. Army 'fighting on multiple fronts'
In addition to the work of USAMRIID, Army leadership is taking precautions to protect servicemembers and new recruits from COVID-19.
"The Army is fighting the virus on multiple fronts, from medical support efforts in our cities to searching for a vaccine in order to stay ready, so we can continue to be the Army the nation deserves," explained McCarthy.
The Army has supplemented its nine permanent medical centers with 35 local testing centers. Additionally, the largest Army training post will be equipped to screen 700 recruits each day beginning in late April. The Fort Jackson, South Carolina training post experienced a low number of positive COVID-19 cases earlier this year, but since the adoption of social distancing protocols, testing capabilities and other safety measures, the DOD has reported that the vius has been contained at Fort Jackson.
"The true heroes in this fight are the medical professionals — people like the scientists and researchers at USAMRIID," said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. "They're working on vaccinations, treatments and better ways to conduct tests that will ultimately help the nation defeat the virus."
AFBA members can learn more about our response to COVID-19 here.