US Army scientists have been working on vaccine long before COVID-19 health crisis

SILVER SPRING, Md. — On. Jan. 10, 2020, the day Chinese scientists published the coronavirus’s genetic sequence, Kayvon Modjarrad received a late-night call from his colleague Dr. Gordon Joyce, chief of the Emerging Infectious Diseases branch’s structural biology section at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Joyce and Modjarrad, the director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases branch, had been working on coronaviruses together since 2012, when they were both research fellows at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center. They continued that work when WRAIR hired them away from NIH about five years ago. Indeed, when SARS-CoV-2 emerged, “we were the only ones actually in the DoD, at that moment, who were working on a coronavirus, in terms of research and development,” Modjarrad said.

The arrival of SARS-CoV-2 surprised neither doctor. “There were two coronaviruses that caused the common cold that were identified in people [from] 1965 to 2002,” Modjarrad said. “Since 2002 there have been five new human coronaviruses that have been isolated and dozens of bat coronaviruses as well. So this acceleration made us concerned that another one was coming.”

The hub of the U.S. military’s effort to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus is deceptively quiet.

At WRAIR, a team of almost 100 scientists is engaged in a multimillion-dollar round-the-clock sprint to find a solution to the pandemic that in the course of three short months has sent a booming economy into depression and killed more than 80,000 Americans. The team has already designed a unique vaccine candidate that Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy describes as one of the “top 15” under development in the world.

But in the institute’s modern headquarters building in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., the hallways and corridors are almost deserted. The voices of the occasional uniformed soldiers or civilian scientists who stride by echo in the emptiness. There is little hint of the potentially history-making work being done behind the closed doors of their offices and laboratories.