MHRP Scientists Pivot to Support Army COVID-19 Vaccine, Therapy Development

MHRP scientists are supporting coronavirus vaccine and therapeutics development efforts led by the Emerging Infectious Diseases Branch (EIDB) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) to advance tools to address the COVID-19 pandemic and counter future coronavirus threats.

WRAIR scientists are taking a strategic long-term approach to their vaccine development efforts. The EIDB, led by Army researcher Dr. Kayvon Modjarrad, has developed a vaccine candidate called SpFN, for Spike Ferritin Nanoparticle. The vaccine is unique among other COVID-19 vaccines in development because the nanoparticle’s multifaceted surface has been engineered to present specific pieces of the coronavirus spike protein (the part of the virus that attaches to the lungs) to the immune system many times over to elicit a strong immune response. 

In preclinical testing, SpFN was shown to be broadly neutralizing against not only the original virus that causes COVID-19 infection, but also against current emerging variants of concern and the rare, but more deadly, SARS-CoV-1 virus. Phase 1 human testing of the vaccine began at the WRAIR Clinical Trials Center in April 2021.

In the future, the vaccine might be adapted so that different faces of the nanoparticle present different coronaviruses to the immune system at the same time. Researchers theorize the vaccine platform could pave the way for a universal vaccine to protect against not only the current virus, but also other known and unknown coronaviruses that could arise in the future. 

Dr. Mangala Rao, chief of Adjuvant and Antigen research for MHRP, led efforts to test vaccine candidates in mice to downselect for the best formulation and determine dosing. Dr. Diane Bolton is conducting non-human primate preclinical testing of SpFN.

Dr. Morgane Rolland, a viral geneticist who has been with MHRP since 2010, conducted genetic analysis of sequences from more than 27,000 individuals infected with the COVID-19 and found that the virus has mutated minimally since its initial outbreak. Her work is ongoing as new variants are identified.

WRAIR is also currently researching monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapies to aid treatment of COVID-19. Dr. Shelly Krebs, chief of MHRP’s B cell biology core, usually researches how HIV-positive individuals naturally develop potent antibody responses to the virus and using those insights to inform HIV vaccination strategies. As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, her lab section has pivoted to studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus to develop antibody products to help detect, prevent and treat the novel coronavirus. Dr. Krebs and her team are also researching how to use mAbs to help diagnose the disease as part of immunoassay development.