ADELPHI, Md. -- The military typically looks towards its infantry and artillery to respond to a threat, but for COVID-19, it’s the scientists and researchers on the front lines of the fight. The Army Futures Command looked to its own scientists and researchers with the expertise needed to win this war.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command are building upon strong collaboration, with each other and with outside entities, to explore every possible solution in response to COVID-19.
“The Army is playing a significant role in this fight, to include organizations that are organic to AFC,” said Gen. John Murray, commander of AFC. “The Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick has three lines of effort: to prevent, to detect and to treat this virus. Other critical work going on within our labs and engineering centers is focused on delivering needed capabilities.”
The Army has extensive capabilities and an international research infrastructure already in place that allows scientists to anticipate and develop countermeasures against emerging infectious diseases.
We’ve been able to move quickly in advancing a vaccine candidate at one of our labs while growing the live virus and developing animal models to test effectiveness at another," said Brig. Gen. Mike Talley, commander of USAMRDC and Fort Detrick.
In support of the COVID-19 response, CCDC, USAMRDC and others have joined forces to maximize existing capabilities and look outside of the box when developing solutions and countermeasures in the face of the threat.
“Recognizing our mission and our intellectual capital, Army Futures Command leadership requested feedback as to what, if anything, we have that could contribute to the prevention, detection or stoppage of the COVID-19 virus,” said Maj. Gen. John A. George, CCDC commanding general, in a March 20 email to his staff. “While this is typically in the medical arena, there is always a possibility that someone may have an idea or potential solution that could contribute in some manner -- ideas such as 3-D printing for face shields and ventilator components have a powerful and immediate impact.”
At Northwestern University, staffers are pivoting to 3-D printing research funded, in part, by CCDC’s Army Research Laboratory to make personal protective equipment for medical personnel on the front lines. Specifically, the team at Northwestern is printing face shields to protect healthcare providers from the viral droplets that spread COVID-19. A massive, eight-foot-tall 3-D printer is turning out 1,000 face shields per day and will likely begin printing goggles and respirator parts in the coming weeks. The university is working with local hospitals in Chicago and Massachusetts to determine the pieces of equipment needed by healthcare workers.
“It has been remarkable to see so many people come together so quickly to demonstrate the power of this new high throughput 3-D printing technology,” said Dr. Chad A. Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology and professor of Medicine at Northwestern University. “The crisis has put a spotlight on the need across the country for high throughput additive manufacturing capabilities in responding to emerging threats like COVID-19.”
In early April, CCDC ARL researchers, in collaboration with biotechnology firm InDi Molecular, Inc. and the Institute for Systems Biology discovered a small-molecule therapeutic against COVID-19. Such efforts could be key in developing immunotherapies or other effective countermeasures against the virus.
“The technology behind this therapeutic was developed by the three groups in anticipation of a need for a rapid response approach to COVID-19,” said Jim Heath, ISB president and a lead investigator on the study. “It has been extremely gratifying to see this program move forward so effectively under such a challenging timeline.”
The combined team is on track to produce candidates for testing by the end of April. ARL is further coordinating with USAMRDC’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research for related pharmacokinetic and toxicology testing and with USAMRDC’s U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases on related studies.
Bolstering this effort, USAMRDC is also using laboratory capabilities to screen for potential drug candidates to treat COVID-19. WRAIR is working with industry partners, using high-performance computers to screen millions of compounds for drugs against COVID-19, to select the most promising candidates to go into laboratory testing. USAMRIID is screening thousands of small-molecule therapeutics in cells, using libraries of existing chemical compounds -- the key ingredients that make up various drugs. USAMRIID is screening compounds and molecules against the actual virus.
USAMRDC laboratories are also working to improve the ability to detect COVID-19 infection in Service Members and their dependents. Scientists are working closely with industry partners in order to advance a range of diagnostic options. These include high-throughput tests to identify who is currently infected, who is no longer infected and who may have been previously infected.
In support of the U.S. Transportation Command, ARL and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency partnered with Zeteo Tech, Inc., to measure the spread of contaminant (using aerosolized, benign simulants) within military aircraft.
“Based on the results, Zeteo Tech, Inc., will identify ways to adjust or otherwise mitigate deficiencies in the air handling system or other structural issues, such as improper or failed seals,” said Dr. Stephen Lee, senior scientist at ARL’s Army Research Office. “By knowing where and how the virus might spread through military aircraft, we can design systems and procedures to stop the spread of virus to aircrew, Soldiers and medical support staff within the aircraft.”
USAMRDC scientists are also considering COVID-19 countermeasures for MEDEVAC operations. In early April, the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory entered into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to test two portable patient isolation units that could potentially transport COVID-19 patients on U.S. Army and Army National Guard medical evacuation aircraft. Researchers are also performing rapid-response evaluations of aircrew performance while wearing N-95 masks, as well as various cloth masks.
In addition to leveraging internal lab capabilities throughout AFC, the researchers are partnering with industry and academia to explore all potential solutions for COVID-19.
Some of those potential solutions are drawn from USAMRDC’s New Products and Ideas webpage, an online tool designed to quickly evaluate submissions that could support the command’s mission. The webpage received more than 80 inquiries from a variety of vendors and contractors in the first week of April 2020 alone. As a result, USAMRDC is working with the Army Application Laboratories at AFC to conduct an initial assessment of these inquires.
A natural extension of that kind of crowd-sourcing effort can be seen in the Army’s recently-announced “xTech COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge” aimed at finding low-cost ventilators that can be quickly manufactured to augment the national supply during the pandemic. Originally launched in 2018, the xTechSearch, or Army Expeditionary Technology Search, was created by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology to identify groundbreaking technologies and the small businesses that create them.
CCDC and USAMRDC are also using industry agreements to advance existing efforts in the fight against COVID-19. The USAMRDC’s U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity is using a CRADA with Gilead Sciences to provide their drug, remdesivir, for the treatment of Department of Defense personnel exposed to COVID-19. Currently, 13 medical treatment facilities are capable of treating patients under this protocol and several patients have received or are currently receiving the treatment.
The Army’s response to COVID-19 also extends to localized efforts to serve U.S. communities and protect the flow of information about the virus. In the first week of April, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge announced a large-scale partnership with the U.S. Army to identify and track COVID-19-related scam websites and social media misinformation that have rapidly spread along with the pandemic. The Arkansas partnership includes Dr. Nitin Agarwal, a member of the state’s academic community and director of several projects funded by ARL. Agarwal’s team has developed a website to help people identify, understand and report misinformation, fake websites and scams related to COVID-19. The site, http://cosmos.ualr.edu/covid-19, is user friendly and geared toward the general public.
As the fight against COVID-19 progresses, the Army is taking advantage of multiple opportunities to leverage expertise and experience in support of current efforts in various stages of development.
“We talk all the time about teamwork, and as the chief would say, winning matters – and right now this is a very big team that’s focused on winning,” Murray said.
The CCDC Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army’s corporate research laboratory, ARL discovers, innovates and transitions science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, CCDC leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more lethal to win the Nation’s wars and come home safely. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the Army Futures Command.
Also a subordinate command of Army Futures Command, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command is the Army’s medical materiel developer, with responsibility for medical research, development and acquisition. The USAMRDC’s expertise in these critical areas helps establish and maintain the capabilities the Army needs to remain ready and lethal on the battlefield. Ensuring our armed forces remain in optimal health and are equipped to protect themselves from disease and injury, particularly on the battlefield, is the job of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command. The Command is headquartered at Fort Detrick, Maryland, with eight subordinate commands located throughout the world.