Army researchers are working hard to help find a vaccine for the new strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, that's sickened tens of thousands of people around the world.
Terry Welch, spokesman for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), confirmed to Task & Purpose that the institute and U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (USAMRDC) are coming at the virus from every angle.
“Specific competencies being leveraged in support of the COVID-19 outbreak include experts in coronaviruses, rapid medical countermeasure development, containment laboratories to test viral countermeasure product safety and efficacy, bio-production facility to manufacture product for clinical trials, clinical trials center to conduct human safety studies and overseas laboratories conducting surveillance and detection in the impacted region,” Welch said.
Col. Robert O'Connell, deputy commander of WRAIR, told Task & Purpose on Monday that WRAIR researchers are working to help detect, prevent, and treat the virus.
He added that they were able to begin their research in early January — almost immediately upon hearing about COVID-19 — because of the institute's history of researching related viruses.
“The moment we heard there was a related virus, it was called the novel coronavirus then, we immediately began the thought process of what would our vaccine candidate be.”
Researchers began testing vaccine candidates on mice “very recently,” O'Connell said.
While governments around the world work to contain the virus, the U.S. military has primarily been focused on keeping U.S. service members safe in the countries they operate in and around.
Military installations are closing base facilities, or preparing to do so; leave for troops serving with U.S. Central Command has been cancelled, and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has restricted all non-essential travel to South Korea.
Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Monday that some scheduled military exercises have been modified on the Korean peninsula, and leadership is looking to see if any other exercises need to be changed as well.
“Right now the overall broad impact to the uniformed U.S. military is very, very minimal,” Milley said. “That’s not to say it’s zero, but it’s very, very minimal. Very few cases have been diagnosed, etc. That’s not surprising because we have a young demographic in the U.S. military, a healthy demographic, lots of immunizations and so-on and so-forth, and we hope to keep it that way.”
When asked what message he would give the American people as concerns over the virus rise, O'Connell said that first and foremost, “our heart goes out to” anyone who is affected, or who knows someone affected by COVID-19.
“I’m a physician and my life’s work is to try to make a difference in the lives of individuals patients, but also by doing research, so that would be my first message,” O'Connell said.
“The second message I would give to you is that WRAIR is made for circumstances like this,” he added. “This is why we exist, to be able to respond when there are crises that require research and development to provide solutions for the war fighter.”