Scientists from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command offered an update into the continuing development of a new and unique COVID-19 vaccine during a highly-anticipated presentation at the annual Association of the U.S. Army meeting in Washington, D.C., on October 12.
“We’re getting to a point now where the pandemic in the U.S. is coming under some control,” said Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch at USAMRDC’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, during a joint presentation with Brig. Gen. Anthony McQueen, commanding general of USAMRDC and Fort Detrick, Maryland. “However, more and more of these infectious disease threats are entering human populations.”
Scientists have designed the WRAIR vaccine platform – dubbed “SpFN” (short for “spike ferritin nanoparticle,” and pronounced “spiff-in”) – to combat all coronaviruses, not just COVID-19. The SpFN vaccine is currently in Phase 1 clinical trials and has seen substantial success following animal models, according to Modjarrad. Modjarrad projects detailed findings to be officially published within the next several weeks.
The SpFN vaccine employs ferritin, which is a protein found in almost all living organisms. By attaching a certain type of spike protein to a polymerized version of ferritin, WRAIR scientists hope the resulting vaccination dose will block COVID-19 infection. In more technical terms, the SpFN vaccine mimics the structure and presentation of a virus, which ultimately allows for a greater impact.
“Things that look like viruses but don’t cause disease will generate a much more potent, much more broad, much more durable response,” said Modjarrad, referring specifically to the production of neutralizing antibodies within the body following vaccination. “We see a much more potent response compared to the other vaccines.”
According to Modjarrad, protein-based vaccines have a long history of safety and effectiveness, with stability being their major selling point; as such, the SpFN vaccine can be kept in a refrigerator for up to six months, and at room temperature for up to one month.
“The focus has shifted to what we need to do to position ourselves for the next pandemic,” said McQueen during his portion of the presentation, which was entitled “Preparing for Future Pandemics: Detect, Prevent, Treat”. “We cannot forget the lessons that we’ve learned over the past 18 months and how to apply those to future outbreaks.”
McQueen focused his remarks on USAMRDC’s efforts to promote and ensure readiness and resilience among the larger military given the increased likelihood of future pandemics. Such efforts include substantial investments in wearable health devices (to monitor an individuals’ symptoms) and in large-scale biological surveillance methods (to monitor a wider number of people). McQueen also pointed to continuing to refining communication channels between federal agencies as a key to remaining one step ahead of the next pandemic.
Elsewhere during the three-day event, USAMRDC Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Laragione participated in a panel discussion entitled “Lessons Learned from Army’s Pandemic Response: Accelerating All-of-Nation Response” on October 13. The event – which featured Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, surgeon general of the U.S. Army and commanding general, U.S. Army Medical Command – focused primarily on notable instances of Army-wide adaptation and success during the pandemic, with Laragione speaking directly to the continued and increasing value of USAMRDC’s global footprint; including the command’s efforts to aid in future global health efforts.
“We’re doing things we’re never done before to get after the fight,” said Laragione during his remarks. “And I think we’re a lot better postured now than we ever were to fight the next threat, to fight the next pandemic.”
USAMRDC’s participation in the event extended into additional areas of AUSA as well. The Office of Research and Technology Applications appeared in the Innovator’s Corner section during the entirety of the three-day event to discuss their ongoing efforts in coordinating all intellectual property licensing on behalf of all USAMRDC subordinate laboratories. Additionally, personnel from USAMRDC’s U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity attended AUSA to promote the Medical Hands-free Unified Broadcast tool, which is an innovative communication platform developed to share patient information between medics and hospitals during medical evacuations.