Coronaviruses are accelerating as a threat to force health and readiness: Seven have evolved to infect human populations, with five emerging in the last 20 years. Force health is a top priority for executing the mission of the Department of Defense. The EIDB branch at WRAIR has responded to the challenged and executed the development of countermeasures against individual coronaviruses with the ultimate goal of developing a pan-coronavirus vaccine.
The U.S. military personnel are geographically dispersed and vulnerable to these infectious threats. Examples of coronaviruses encountered by troops include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness. Coronaviruses have the potential to cause serious respiratory illnesses and have mortality rates that can reach 40%, as is the case with MERS; or, transmit through stealth mechanisms that culminate into a global health emergency, as with SARS-CoV-2. There are currently no licensed products specifically intended for the prevention or treatment of SARS or MERS, although there are effective vaccines for COVID-19, it continues to evolve. The contagiousness of coronaviruses poses an especial threat to Service Members who work in close quarters during training, transport and deployment.
WRAIR’s work with coronaviruses began in 2015, and EIDB draws on that experience and expertise from decades of work on other viruses such as malaria, dengue and HIV to not only develop products to combat current coronavirus threats, but also anticipate emergence of new pathogens in this virus family.
To mitigate this concern, WRAIR scientists are using a ferritin vaccine platform, which will pave the way for a universal vaccine to protect against all known and unknown coronaviruses that could arise in the future.