Army researchers at Fort Detrick who helped discover Ebola treatment seek coronavirus vaccine

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FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Army researchers at Fort Detrick are fast at work growing batches of COVID-19 to help test treatment options and eventually find a coronavirus vaccine.

"They take some of the virus and put it onto cells," Dr. Kathleen Gibson, a core laboratory services division chief at the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases [USAMRIID], explained through a triple-glass window as Army researchers wearing protective gear worked with the deadly virus. "They look for the virus that will actually kill portions of the cells and they'll count those killed portions."

These are the same army scientists who helped develop vaccines for anthrax, the plague and Ebola. Now, they have been working double shifts growing large amounts of the COVID-19 virus at this sprawling lab complex.

"We have more capacity to run more studies at the same time," Col. E. Darrin Cox, the commander of USAMRIID, explained. "We can be running things in parallel rather than having to do things sequentially, and that's helped speed up the process of the science."

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.

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."

Army researchers have shot compounds such as chloroquine into vials of COVID-19 to see how it's reacted.

"We can test about 300 drugs or compounds in each plate," Dr. Sheli Radoshitzky said. "We add the compounds using this robotic system and then we transfer the plates into bio-containment where we add the virus."

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 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.

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Men and women in these hallways were some of the first boots on the ground during the first Ebola outbreak.

The Army scientists working with COVID-19 have used level 3 gear because the virus is less lethal than Ebola, but still highly contagious.

A biosafety officer showed Fox News an airlock where scientists have decontaminated after working their shifts. These high-pressure chemical showers acted like a car wash, with scientists showering in their protective gear.

These level 4 labs at Fort Detrick have shifted to COVID-19 research, doubling their ability to find therapeutic drugs and, eventually, a vaccine.

"The anthrax vaccine... we've helped develop. There's also plague vaccines that we've developed here, as well as the vaccines and treatments for Ebola virus. So, there's been a long history, at least 50 years here of research and development all the way from the benchtop to a final clinical product," Dye explained.

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 Cox.

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"The smaller animals, 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."

Asked what his message to Americans would be after seeing these Army scientists at work, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said, "These men and women have been here before and they prevailed… We're going to find this vaccine and we're gonna win in the end."