There’s important coronavirus news. Scientists at Stanford University in California are now beginning a landmark study. They’re using new antibody tests to identify people who already had coronavirus but never knew it because they had no major symptoms. They could be immune and able to get back to business. The tests may also help calculate an accurate fatality rate for coronavirus which so far has been impossible. As the search for treatment and cures escalates, we get an inside look at one frontline: Ft. Detrick, Maryland. Our guide is Colonel Darrin Cox, Commander at U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, they call it USAMRIID.
(This piece begins with a tour of the USAMRIID labs)
Col. Darrin Cox, Commander, United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases: The Laboratory Response Network can take an unknown and can develop or can determine what the agent is.
(Looking in to the BSL-3 lab)
Col. Cox: So this gentleman is doing cell culture in a BSL-3 laboratory.
Sharyl: What does that mean in layman's terms?
Col. Cox: So BSL stands for biosafety level. BSL-3 is the same laboratory that is used for coronavirus. We have extensive BSL-3 lab capabilities here as well as BSL-4, which is the highest level of biosafety level.
Sharyl: When you say you have samples of coronavirus what are you hoping to do with them?
Col. Cox: We characterize that virus to ensure that it maintained integrity in the replication. And then we take that virus and run assays against it, so we can use it to make diagnostics. We can use it to screen against therapeutics. So what we can do is we have a extensive library of therapeutics. We call them small molecules. So, that's pieces of the drugs that might have action against that virus.
Sharyl: Stuff that could be made into medicine?
Col. Cox: Absolutely. So we will take those small molecules, we will test them again in cell culture against the virus and see if there's any activity, any antiviral activity against a particular virus that we're studying. In this case, the coronavirus.
USAMRIID is the only DOD laboratory that has BSL-4 capabilities.
(Looking at a BSL-4 lab)
Col. Cox: So this gentleman is working in BSL-4 conditions, so what you can see there he has what's called, he has a suit on that has air coming in, and is a positive pressure suit.
This is how we communicate with these folks because...
(lab technician posts a “Hello” sign to Sharyl and Col. Cox)
Sharyl: Oh, you have to write a letter?
Col. Cox: Oh yeah, a lot of noise associated with working in BSL-4. So this lab in particular works often on Ebola.
Sharyl: Still working on Ebola because someday we may see that again.
Col. Cox: Correct.
Sharyl: What related to coronavirus is going on right now at this lab?
Col Cox: So we develop animal models to help us conduct research. So you try to create animal models that mimic the disease, the way it behaves in humans. So that you can then either study vaccines, or you can study drugs, therapeutics that have action against the coronavirus. So we use the stock that we're growing in order to challenge the animals with the coronavirus.
Sharyl: Will Fort Detrick be conducting vaccine studies for coronavirus?
Col. Cox: We will.
Sharyl: Any idea when that's going to start?
Col. Cox: Right. So we're working diligently to develop those animal models now. We're growing up the virus stock to be able to challenge those animals, to do an aerosol challenge. In fact, the equipment that you see right here will be utilized in those studies. And so this equipment allows us to mimic the way people are exposed in a respiratory manner to the viruses.
Sharyl: When an emergency like this happens, how does the pace and the operation of a place like this change quickly? What's happened here?
Col. Cox: So we're always on the outlook for emerging infectious diseases. So we're always very busy. But when something like this comes along and we have a pandemic, we have a national emergency, the effort just doubles up. We're working around the clock to develop these animal models, to be able to start the studies on vaccines and therapeutics against the coronavirus.
Sharyl: Where did you get the coronavirus that you're experimenting with?
Col. Cox: So we received a sample from the CDC.
Sharyl: You just need one, because then you can grow it.
Col. Cox: Correct. We can grow it.
Sharyl: As much as you want?
Col. Cox: Yes.
Sharyl: So here's where we first found out this was an antiviral drug that worked against Ebola?
Col. Cox: Correct. It has activity against Ebola. There are a lot of medicines that are being developed that have potential activity against Ebola. But what we were able to do is take our knowledge of how remdesivir worked against Ebola and apply it to research against coronavirus. They're different types of viruses, but there's some common antiviral activity. And so we will use remdesivir and study is against Ebola, along with a host of other potential therapeutics.
Sharyl: In simple terms, is it possible this same drug that works against Ebola, or one like it will be something that works against coronavirus?
Col. Cox: Absolutely.
Sharyl: And you're trying to figure that out?
Col. Cox.: We will try to figure that out.