By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Russell Olson, a viral vaccine manager at WRAIR’s Pilot Bioproduction Facility, holds up the Zika vaccine that the lab has worked on over the past few months. DoD photo by Katie Lange
Take a look at the bottle that gentleman is holding above. It could be a container for just about anything – mouthwash, or maybe some peppermint extract. Except it’s way more important than that. It just happens to be a vaccine that could eventually protect people across the world from the rapidly spreading mosquito-borne illness known as the Zika virus.
As of last week, Zika has been reported in 65 countries and territories, including in areas where U.S. troops are active. So that little container of liquid is a very big deal, and it was created at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s Pilot Bioproduction Facility by researchers that include service members.
This is 300 mililiters per bottle of tissue culture medium containing Zika virus. Photo by Water Reed Army Institute of Research
The Maryland facility doesn’t exactly have the high-tech feel I expected. The rooms are reminiscent of a high school chemistry class — complete with tin foil, glass jugs and plastic tubes. There are pinkish-beige rounded bricks lining the decades-old walls, which are filled with refrigerators and freezers that give off a collective hum. But it’s not about the aesthetics there – it’s about the life-saving products the researchers create.
For the past several months, Army Spc. Chris Springer has walked into that building, thrown on his lab coat and gotten to work running tests for researchers closing in on a Zika vaccine.
U.S. Army Spc. Chris Springer flashes a smile as he puts some of his lab-testing equipment into one of the facility’s many refrigerators. DoD photo by Katie Lange
“It was pretty tedious. I would say our workload probably doubled,” Springer said.
Unlike many in science and tech fields, he chose the military over a private-sector career, enlisting in October 2013 after getting a bachelor’s degree from Sam Houston State University.
“I thought about joining throughout my life. After college I looked at my options, and it seemed like [the Army] had the best opportunities for me,” Springer said. “The military really is the most diverse organization or group of people you’ll ever meet.”
Researchers work in the PBF clean room under a biological safety cabinet. Photo by Water Reed Army Institute of Research
He said he had some family in the medical field, so he decided to become a medical laboratory tech. He went to AIT for training and also got an associate’s degree and a certification. He was assigned to WRAIR as a viral technician about a year and a half ago.
“I feel very fortunate. I actually wanted to get a field unit, and they put me here, which is pretty much the exact opposite,” Springer joked. “But I lucked out.”
He’s one of very few service members to get to work on the Zika vaccine.
How They Made the Vaccine So Fast
While many vaccines can take years to create, this one took only a few months.
“We actually cleared our calendar so we could do Zika,” said the facility’s chief researcher, Dr. Kenneth Eckels.
Researchers examine vero cells for the Zika virus. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research photo
So how did they make it so fast? Here’s the gist:
PBF researchers received a Puerto Rican strain of the virus, called Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine (ZPIV), from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in February. Zika is a flavivirus similar to West Nile, dengue and Japanese encephalitis, which the facility has worked on before. With those viruses, researchers took procedures they tested in their lab and applied them to producing a vaccine for human clinical testing. Since those procedures are already in place, and Zika is similar to them, that’s also the goal for Zika.
Researchers in the clean room work to manipulate Zika virus-infected cells. Photo by Water Reed Army Institute of Research
Once initial tests were run by Springer and his colleagues, the virus strain was taken into a clean room by researchers in biohazard suits, who continued testing it there under what basically looked like a salad bar sneeze guard. Their job was to make sure the virus strain had been deactivated (much like the flu shot).
Last week, the ZPIV that PBF researchers had been working on was successfully completed. It’s now being tested for purity, safety and immunogenicity (if it produces an immune response).
Where the Process Goes from There
If all of the testing is favorable, the ZPIV vaccine will be given to clinical researchers for phase one of human trials, when human volunteers can test it for safety and immune responses. WRAIR officials hope trials will begin by the end of this year.
Researchers take a sample from the lab’s fermenter. Photo by Water Reed Army Institute of Research
WRAIR researchers have also begun taking all they’ve learned about Zika and transferring those techniques to Sanofi Pasteur, a huge company with whom WRAIR recently signed a cooperative research and development agreement. Sanofi has the capability to manufacture the vaccine at a much larger scale for phase two and three testing – when researchers actually use the ZPIV in areas with active disease to see how patients are protected.
If it’s successful, Sanofi will manufacture ZPIV on a commercial scale. The Defense Department will then be able to get the finished product from Sanofi for use in troops.
So when Springer eventually gets his Zika immunization, it’ll be pretty cool to say he helped make it, huh?
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