March 22, 2020
Led by Dr. Sheila Peel, the Diagnostics and Countermeasures Branch of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research responded quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Peel and a Rapid Response Team of experts, including HJF scientists, focused their research on building and supporting military capability, capacity and readiness.
The Branch has played a critical role in developing, improving and evaluating diagnostic technologies to protect Department of Defense personnel and their dependents from SARS-CoV-2 infections. Their efforts include the development of new diagnostic assays and identification of optimal diagnostic testing platforms, assays and algorithms using evidenced-based approaches.
Timeliness is a key factor in COVID-19 diagnosis. In some regions of the United States, people wait up to 14 days for test results, leading to potential transmission of the virus to family members, friends and the community. In collaboration with industry partners, the Branch is engaged in developing a systems approach to pooled testing, which has the potential to expedite and expand COVID-19 testing and conserve critically constrained reagents and consumable supplies.
Dr. Peel and her team validated high-throughput nucleic acid testing capacity that currently supports surveillance efforts to minimize the risk of COVID-19 infection and control the spread in U.S. military personnel. They are validating an in-house laboratory developed assay for detection of SARS-CoV-2 viral replication intermediates to confirm the presence of activity-replicating virus in personnel with COVID-19 infection. Efforts are focused on the use of this “clearance” assay in test algorithms to provide laboratory evidence that service members are no longer infectious and may return to duty.
In addition, the Branch has optimized and validated laboratory-developed assays to test samples collected from primates immunized a candidate vaccine, SpFN, developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Results from these studies will be used by investigators to down-select the best vaccine candidate for Phase 1 clinical trials. The Rapid Response Team has also been validating and implementing novel immunoassay platforms to align with other organizations aiding Operation Warp Speed so as to compare external vaccine trial results to SpFN vaccine candidates.
For its research efforts, Dr. Peel and her Rapid Response Team received the 2020 Military Health Systems Research Symposium Team Award for Outstanding Research Accomplishment/Team/Military in the research category, “Detecting the Next Threats: Technological Advances for Field Pathogen Identification.”