inFocus: Fort Detrick laboratories play role in pandemic research

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FREDERICK, Md (WDVM) — When it comes to unfolding the threat of a pandemic, it’s researchers and scientists who are on the front lines working to discover what pathogens plague the globe. 

Throughout history, one of the greatest threats to humanity has been disease and illness. 

“You can think of a virus and a human in a race. The virus and the human are in a race to see who survives best,” explained Dr. John Dye.

More than 700 researchers and military members at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) are dedicated to uncovering what makes these pathogens thrive. And, ultimately, what the human body can do to survive against them. 

“We’re very interested in how those infectious diseases spread and then trying to understand how to go about combating those infectious diseases,” said Dr. Dye, chief of viral immunology at USAMRIID.

The work to unravel infectious diseases is done in part by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command (MRDC), the program that coordinates research for the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Some of that work is done inside USAMRIID located at the Fort Detrick Army installation in Frederick, Maryland. 

“Our primary duty is to provide these medical countermeasures for the warfighter, to keep the warfighter safe,” explained USAMRIID Commander Col. E. Darrin Cox, “But many things we do have a broader public health implication. For example, MRDC laboratories have been involved in anything from malaria, which is a worldwide problem, to smallpox to Ebola. Many of these various pathogens have not necessarily directly impacted troops or have impacted troops in small numbers, but have an impact on national security in the united states and or in public health.”

USAMRIID is home to an assortment of laboratories that handle research varying from bacteria that don’t cause diseases, like non-pathogenic E. coli, in what’s referred to as biosafety level-1 labs, or BSL-1. On the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous viruses for which there is currently no FDA-approved vaccine or cure, like Ebola, is researched in BSL-4 labs. 

“We can truly pivot in very short order to meet any emerging disease that’s on the horizon,” Cox said, “And beyond that, we represent to only BSL-4 capability in the department of defense.”

 So how does the research begin? Year-round scientists are out in the field in foreign countries and collecting samples of unknown viruses.

“Whether it’s a patient that has the virus, whether it’s a human virus or in many cases, it’s an animal virus that actually then jumps to humans,” Dye explained, “So we are out collecting viruses from the environment, we bring them back here, we culture here, we grow them up so we can work on them in large batches.”

And when it comes to pandemics, those samples are delivered straight to USAMRIID. That’s the case for the COVID-19 virus.

“Within the first month, to month and a half, we had the genetic determination and characterization of that particular virus, as well as we had the virus grown up in large batches to access it in different animal models,” said Dye. 

Research continues in the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. In the past, Dye says USAMRIID scientists have played a key role in researching some of the deadliest viruses. 
“We’ve developed treatments and vaccines for Ebola virus, Marburg virus, hanta viruses,” said Dye. 

And that success builds on knowledge needed to tackle whatever pandemic may come next.

“We’re not seeing brand new viruses. We’re seeing different versions of the same virus so being prepared for those previous allows us to be better prepared for the future,” said Dye. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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